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Omaha Magazine

1% Productions: Architects of the Benson Area's Cool-Factor

Feb 01, 2022 11:52AM ● By J.D. Avant
Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson in waiting room venue

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

 Omaha’s music and entertainment scene owe a debt of gratitude to Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson. Their entrepreneurial mindset and independent spirit have brought a sense of cool to the city that didn’t exist before. Any lover of indie rock or underground hip-hop should acknowledge them for bringing Omaha a vibrant music scene, starting in 1997.  

Co-owners of the live music and entertainment company 1% Productions, their relationship goes back more than 30 years to Beveridge Middle School. Their friendship evolved while attending Burke High School, as they shared a mutual love of live-music performances stretching across
multiple genres. 

At that time, in the 1980s and early 1990s, Omaha was a performance desert when it came to acts that weren’t Billboard chart toppers like Garth Brooks or New Kids on the Block. The teenagers disliked the fact they had to travel out of state to attend concerts featuring indie rock and burgeoning hip-hop acts.

“Even before we started doing shows we would drive to Lawrence, Kansas, or Des Moines, Iowa, to see shows,” Leibowitz recalled. “We always thought there was a void that was there until we started. The goal was to have them come to Nebraska so we wouldn’t have to travel as far.”

After graduating high school in 1992, Leibowitz moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas and study business while Johnson remained in Omaha to pursue a career in auto-body work. 

“By that point, I’d already started booking a few concerts. Some of the local indie-rock guys,” Johnson said. “I’d been doing that for about a year and a half at Sokol.” 

While Leibowitz was in college, Johnson traveled to Austin to visit him. The reunion gave the future business partners a chance to talk about their shared passion. Johnson used the opportunity to present his old friend an offer he knew Leibowitz
couldn’t refuse. 

He wanted Leibowitz to join him in his up-and-coming side-hustle: booking concerts and living their childhood dream after he graduated college. Bringing acts they wanted to hear to Omaha would give them an exclusive path into the world of live music, and the fact they were in Austin, then billed as “The Live Music Capital of the World” by their chamber of commerce, provided
 some encouragement.

“Every band we wanted to see was playing in Austin,” Leibowitz recalled.

What made the proposition sweeter was Johnson’s arrangement with the owners of Sokol Auditorium. 

The historic Omaha landmark—built in 1926—originally hosted gymnastics and Bohemian fraternal meetings. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the auditorium required a promoter to pay a rental fee, but the basement was used for storage. Johnson was one of the initial promoters to jump on the opportunity of a free space, and he helped create a different venue beneath the auditorium christened The Sokol Underground.

In 1997, Johnson and Leibowitz officially formed 1% Productions. The first act they promoted was Ani DiFranco, whose studio album Dilate had peaked at 87 on the Billboard 200 the year before. They promoted live concerts in the basement of Sokol for minimal expenses, allowing the pair to garner more money from the shows. Their main expense was hiring a sound engineer. 

Without the expenses the venue upstairs required, such as professional security, this new space allowed the budding promoters to invest in essential upgrades. Those included a louder PA system to satisfy attendees coming to see acts they couldn’t see anywhere else in Omaha—such as Murs, Sage Francis, and Atmosphere—who have gone on to play national and worldwide tours. 

“We did the underground hip-hop stuff for a long time,” Johnson said. “If you were there to see [Wu-Tang Clan member] Ghostface Killah back in the day you would notice there was no security.” 

1% Productions found many people in Omaha who appreciated the music they loved and were willing to support their favorite artists. The hard part was getting into different venues, such as the former Ranch Bowl or the Music Box on Cass Street. 

While those spots might let them do a couple of initial shows they would eventually push back, citing grievances like low profits and
unwelcome crowds.

“We had to rely on our insight. We were younger and more into music. Every band we booked we liked. We went on gut feelings that this band can do 100 or 200 people,” Leibowitz said.

A lot of those indie bands would go on to be
huge acts. 

“It’s weird to watch a lot of people that were booking those tiny bands back then are huge agents now,” Johnson said. “Agents representing Mumford & Sons, and Vampire Weekend, who are now huge bands. They were little guys like us, had a good year, and their careers took off.”

“Cool part about the underground scene is they’re booked by different people so they can be approached in a different way,” Leibowitz added. “Bigger companies booking Radiohead weren’t taking our calls in the beginning. We were booking bands represented by independent people and it was a different mindset.” 

The guys at 1% Productions were finding success with an approach that took them back to their days in high school when they wanted the main venues in town to treat the bands and people in their demographic with respect.

“We were thinking we could do a better job and bring the bands they weren’t bringing,”
Johnson said. 

“Once we started doing it we started seeing why the shows we liked weren’t getting booked by mainstream venues,” Leibowitz added. “They were riskier and not always as profitable.”

Johnson and Leibowitz booked shows for the next 10 years as a side hustle while Johnson continued laboring in the auto-body world and Leibowitz did IT jobs for Homer’s Records and IBM.

They still used Sokol Underground as their main venue but had enough business to put on shows at places like Saddle Creek Bar, Knickerbockers, and the old Cog Factory on Leavenworth.

Their dream was to open their spot where they’d be free to put on the shows they wanted, as they wanted them seen. Whether they wanted to fill the house with hundreds of people or have an intimate performance for a few guests, the owners of 1% Productions wanted to appease like-minded music fans throughout the city. That goal came to fruition when they opened The Waiting Room in 2007.

Situated at the western entrance to the main Benson Area strip on Maple between North 59th and North 63rd streets, The Waiting Room predates the majority of businesses that give life to the district. 

“Jakes was there but they didn’t have the big bar,” Leibowitz recalled. 

Nowadays, the marquee at the Waiting Room lights up the street as people experience the nightlife along the strip and take advantage of what the area has to offer. 

Before The Waiting Room arrived, the Benson area was occupied by a community center, one or two tattoo shops, and questionable biker bars. When asked if the construction of their seminal lounge was responsible for the area’s current diversity and success, the duo recount different views.

“Well, I’d like to think so,” Johnson started.

“We weren’t the first, but we definitely helped the growth,” Leibowitz said. “My only exposure to Benson before us was The Mix bar where we did a few shows.”

For years, the pair had searched for an inexpensive property to host the myriad performances that were coming their way. They liked the Benson area, and after the owner of the former establishment fell behind on rent, Johnson and Leibowitz saw their opportunity to create the venue they always wanted, but it would take some work.

That included acquiring finances. Johnson and Leibowitz had to provide 50% of the total amount to purchase the building. Since they had no prior history in the world of commercial leasing, banks refused to lend them the
full $750,000. 

They also had to come up with funds to renovate the building, which included a handicap entrance and ramp. Johnson and Leibowitz even had to petition the city to remove the “Motorcycle Only” parking in front of the building.

They owe a lot to their late landlord for taking a chance on them. He gave them breaks, such as not making them sign personal guarantees and other formalities a commercial lease requires without rental history. They expressed monumental gratitude and credit him for a lot of their
initial success.  

Inserting a high-profile venue catering to indie acts would give the Benson area a much-needed 21st century facelift and identity, and residents around the classic neighborhood welcomed the new establishment.

“Replacing a biker bar, we were looked upon favorably,” Leibowitz said.

While Johnson and Leibowitz admit having trouble remembering all of the early shows at The Waiting Room, the list they can provide includes an impressive roster of musicians that graced their stage before becoming household names.

“Imagine Dragons played here…Wiz Khalifa played here…21 Pilots played here,” Leibowitz said, highlighting the independent spirit they brought to the locale.  

“There’s a place for everyone,” he continued. “Those shows that do 100 people can be some of the most amazing shows we’ve ever done. Nathaniel Rateliff is now huge but played here for five people for 50 bucks. Everyone has got to start somewhere. It doesn’t mean they’re less talented, just less popular.”

With the success of The Waiting Room, Johnson and Leibowitz realized they were filling the area with people who needed a trendy spot other than the Old Market to enjoy a night on the town. 

Their investments in the property lining Maple Street and beyond have displayed their keen business sense along with a heartfelt desire to shape the Benson area into something promising.

“Everything is all sort of related in a sense,” Leibowitz said when describing their various ventures after forming 1% Productions. 

They established a real estate company, Revamp LLC, in 2006 and purchased the building at 6212 Maple St. housing The Waiting Room and their second venue, Reverb Lounge. 

The additional spot came about when a tenant on the other side of their building moved out. Revamp would also purchase the building across the street to recondition into three apartments and two businesses, including Krug Park.

“We own part of Krug Park business, but not the restaurant side,” Leibowitz clarified.

Johnson poured his efforts into renovating the old Bank of Benson where the current Taco Co. resides, and the entrepreneurs also purchased the old Sydney building.

“I wish we owned the building so there wasn’t a weird sex shop down the street,” Leibowitz said jokingly. “But, you buy properties so you can make sure the next sex shop doesn’t open up. When we opened up Krug Park there were five bars on the strip, now there’s a dozen.” 

Leibowitz would also like more retail spaces and restaurants to move into the area. While those businesses come with more risk, he sees them as worthy investments. 

“Now there are a couple of different teams that own the vast majority of the strip and it is worlds different than [in] 2007,” he said. “Buildings are selling for more money. That kind of stuff wouldn’t have happened before. Benson was sort of isolated and abandoned before.”

Now specializing in bringing old things new life, the owners of 1% Productions have come full circle, purchasing the old Sokol Auditorium in summer 2021. They are excited to put in the effort needed to turn the building where they started their careers into a spectacular venue. 

The normally quiet Johnson lights up when talking about their new project and how they came upon the building’s new moniker. They wanted to give it a definitive name that already existed in Omaha’s theater lexicon, so they decided to pay homage to another classic venue, The Admiral Theater, formerly located on the northwest corner of 40th and Farnam streets.

“I love Omaha theater history,” Johnson said. “When it came to Sokol we thought let’s stick with a theme. It was a cool name with Omaha history. It’s a big deal for both of us to finally own Sokol. It’s going to be a world-class venue.” 

With the renovation of the new Admiral Theater, along with celebrating The Waiting Room’s 15th birthday in 2022, the owners of 1% Productions show no sign of slowing down in bringing top-notch entertainment to the Big O. 

Visit onepercentproductions.com for more information.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2022  issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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