Queen of Cultural Collaboration

Betyse Paragas grew Omaha’s cultural footprint

“My favorite thing is collaborating. I like to see the arts organizations in Omaha do things together,” enthused Betsye Paragas, Director of Community Relations for Opera Omaha.

Over the course of her career, Paragas has worked for many arts organizations including the Omaha Children’s Museum and most notably, the Omaha Community Playhouse. She thought she was leaving there to retire, but duty called and she started helping Opera Omaha during a time of transition that led up to the new leadership it has today.

The Creston, Iowa native was a natural in theater, studying drama for two years at Iowa University before being recruited to the Pasadena Playhouse School to perform and study. Her hometown sweetheart kept calling, though, and she followed him to Omaha, where working in a behavioral class room for Omaha Public Schools and raising a family led to joining the Omaha Children’s Museum just as it was moving into its permanent home on 20th Street.

Paragas said collaborating with other arts organizations has been a great way to share funding and cross promote events and she’s never been afraid to push boundaries on arts promotions.

She recalled a particular promotion she did while working at the Omaha Children’s Museum that was a lot of fun, “When the moving, growling dinosaurs first came to the museum, we went out under the cover of darkness and painted dinosaur tracks all over downtown. The tracks led up to the museum for that big opening day.”

During her tenure at the Omaha Children’s Museum, Paragas was able to initiate collaborations with many different organizations, not just arts groups. One day, the museum brought in a fire engine from a store at Crossroads Mall. Paragas explained the fire engine had been sitting there a long time and the museum kept trying to acquire it. Finally, the Omaha Fire Department gave it to the museum.

“We kid-proofed it and brought it into the museum,” Paragas said.

The Omaha Children’s Museum also partnered with Cox Communications for its Spookfest events. Spookfest offered kids who couldn’t afford it, the opportunity to choose from an assortment of donated costumes for Halloween.

Thinking back to her time at the Playhouse, Paragas laughed, “When we did Forbidden Planet. I put a rocket ship up on the roof of the playhouse and it attracted lots of attention and brought people in.”

It was while she was working at the Playhouse that she had what she considers her biggest promotion idea of all time. The Playhouse was getting ready to do The Buddy Holly Story. She said she was sitting there wondering how she was going to attract the people who loved ‘50s music to the musical.

“I decided to have a ‘50s car show here on the opening day. It just drew all sorts of people who were interested in ‘50s music. They brought in wonderful cars from the 1950s and that made everyone aware we were doing this,” she said.

Singer Billy McGuigan was incorporated into that particular show.  Paragas admits she always felt guilty about asking him to do the musical. That’s because it was so successful and brought so many people in, McGuigan went on to become a first-rate musician instead of becoming a teacher as he planned to do that fall.

The Buddy Holly Story ended up making more money than any show the Playhouse had done up to that point. Paragas credits McGuigan’s talents, tons of promotion and a lobby decorated with ‘50s memorabilia for that success.

Paragas described the opera as a smorgasbord because you get everything in one place: singing, acting, costumes, sets and dancing.

“It’s just great because when someone walks into the opera for the first time, they are kind of amazed that all of these parts of the performing arts are all there,” she said.

Paragas loves introducing people to art forms that are new to them and she said Opera Omaha’s new mission is exciting. “Roger Weitz wanted to introduce opera goers in Omaha to things they never thought they would see here. He plans to offer one grand opera every year, one opera that is not obscure but maybe hasn’t been in Omaha before and then one family opera at the end of the season.”

Successful collaborations require everyone to put forth their best effort. Paragas said the key to her success has been something she calls “piggyback public relations and marketing.”

“I look around at all the arts organizations and see what they’re doing. Then I see if we are doing something that goes along with it. If they are, I jump on that and do cross promotion with them. It helps the budget and it helps attendance,” Paragas said.

She explained that if you attend one event, you might well be spurred on to go to another. Paragas said instead of organizations competing with one another, collaboration is truly the way to make each organization successful.

“It’s really important for Omaha to continue to support their arts organizations because it enhances our community so much and makes it a place to come to and a place to live,” said Paragas. 

posted at 04:16 pm
on Monday, August 26th, 2013

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