Greg Combs loves storytelling.
Most of the time, as vice president of show design and production for Disney Imagineering, Combs helps shape the stories told at Disney's theme parks, cruise ships and resort hotels.
In his mind, each ride, stage show or exotic setting is a form of storytelling.
But right now, he is focused on the unfolding story of family. Of finding that tricky balance between work and the rest of life. Of recharging his creative batteries.
Combs, 51, knew he had to do it in Omaha, his hometown.
The story began last November when he called his grandmother, Mary Louise Funkhouser, to wish her a happy 98th birthday.
“She said, 'It's been a while since I've seen you. Don't wait until my funeral to see me the next time,'” Combs recalled.
That hit home. Busy in a high-pressure job, raising two teenagers with his wife, Kathleen, in La Crescenta, Calif., Combs hadn't been to Omaha in two years. But he'd been thinking he needed time away.
And not just for Grandma. Combs — who came up through the Disney ranks designing lighting and props for stage shows, or interiors for rides, or theme-park storefronts — had been booted up to management.
His job now is to refine Disney's successful formula that guides every new project, while also keeping track of 450 people who create: constructing a “Ratatouille”-themed attraction in Paris and a new park in Shanghai; wrapping up construction on a park in Hong Kong, an “Avatarland” at Animal Kingdom in Florida and a new digital 3-D “Star Wars” attraction in Tokyo; plus generating ideas.
His weekly schedule on his laptop is color-coded: yellow for monthly meetings, green for meetings he requests, gray for meetings others request, purple for meeting with the boss, red for time at his desk to get things done.
He jogs to relieve stress.
Combs loves his new job. But he needed to reconnect with his creative side, rooted in theater, and with his grandmother. And he wanted time to reflect on his approach to management, on the big picture.
“I'll call Gibilisco,” Combs told himself, thinking of pal John Gibilisco. “We talk about work and life.”
Gibilisco, sound designer and master electrician at the Omaha Community Playhouse, grew up with Combs in the Aksarben neighborhood around 56th and William Streets.
The two walked the path toward theater careers together, volunteering at the Playhouse at age 15. They fell in love with the energy there, the camaraderie, the magic of telling a story onstage and watching an audience get swept away.
Boyhood pals John Gibilisco, left, and Greg Combs catch up at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where Gibilisco is resident sound designer and master electrician.
They're the kind of friends who, no matter how long it's been, pick up right where they left off.
Combs asked Gibilisco if he could volunteer at the Playhouse again if he just showed up.
Gibilisco was stunned into silence. “Really?” he finally asked.
Gibilisco gave Combs the dates of the next show's tech rehearsals and performances, not really believing it could happen.
“I thought 'How's he gonna get this past his boss and his wife?'” Gibilisco explained later. “But Greg is the 'anything is possible' guy. I should never have doubted him.”
Combs put together a plan that would use vacation time, but was apprehensive about explaining his plan to the boss.
He talked of how, in management, there's always an issue needing attention. How, after five years, he needed to hit “pause.” How he wanted time to not just react to the latest problem, but plan.
His boss, chief design and project-delivery executive Craig Russell, got it immediately.
“He says 'This is a great idea. You need to go do this. Then come back and share your story with the rest of the company, as an example of taking control of our lives.'”
Russell said later that Disney promotes overall well-being in a career and is interested in what its employees can do over the long haul.
In a leadership career, the boss said, six weeks isn't a big deal.
Kathleen Combs also knew right away that this was something her husband needed to do, for both creative energy and family.
When Greg lost his mother, Nancy, to cancer in 1982, he didn't get to say goodbye. She was in a coma by the time he got there.
“I think Grandmother Funkhouser is giving him that opportunity for closure, on both camps,” Kathleen said. “How can I say no to that?”
Kathleen knows the often retold story of a long-ago Thanksgiving with the Funkhousers when Greg was a kid. He didn't want to clean his plate. His father said no dessert and sent him from the table. Grandmother Funkhouser said if Greg got no dessert, she would leave the table too, and did.
They both got dessert. And the bond with her oldest grandchild deepened.
Combs said the death of his mother had left a hole in the family. She had been a driving force. His grandmother had lost her husband not long before Nancy died, and Combs felt that a great sense of loss attached him and his grandmother again.
“Nancy loved to laugh and have fun,” said Greg's aunt, Kathy Funkhouser. “Both Greg's parents did. That's why all three of their boys have such good wit and like to laugh. That's why they're close to their grandmother.”
As Greg Combs prepared to leave for Omaha, son Evan and daughter Eirin wrote supportive letters to their dad and put them in his suitcase.
“He's got their respect and understanding for a good reason,” Kathleen said. “He's a great dad and a wonderful husband.”
He arrived here Feb. 2. Kathleen came to Omaha for a visit over Valentine's Day. She'll return March 17 to drive home with him.
Once he decided to go for it, Combs said, it was strange how easily the Omaha sabbatical came together.
It's been going great. Especially the storytelling.
Mary Louise Funkhouser, who lives with daughter Kathy in Pacific Springs Village near 173rd and Pacific Streets, has good days and bad. Some days she's not up for conversation.
“I'm glad I came when I did,” Combs said. “You remember people as you last saw them. It was a surprise how much of a toll age had taken in two years. Her energy's limited.”
But she's still able to tell her favorite stories. Keep to one subject and take it slow, and she does pretty well most days. Combs is videotaping their sessions together, so the stories will be shared and not lost.
He went to a recent visit armed with a family tree. Their topic that day was Pinky and Alice, domestic servants who sometimes looked after Funkhouser while she was growing up. They lived in the large house of her grandfather, cattle baron Simpson Finnell of Atchison County, Mo.
Pinky was Native American. Alice was African-American. Finnell left land to both of them, and they are buried in the family plot.
“He (Finnell) had 12 children,” Funkhouser said, smiling broadly. “But he didn't like children.”
“I'd hate to see what happened if he liked 'em,” Combs replied, and both laughed.
Patiently, Combs coaxed the story from his grandmother. When she couldn't remember a detail, she'd say, “Well, anyway ...,” and he'd gently fill in the blank or move on with another question.
“I love her stories,” Combs said. “And I love sharing my stories of Kathleen and the kids, the adventures we've been on.”
While in Omaha, he's also swapping stories with his dad, Michael Combs, remarried and retired from Northern Natural Gas; his younger brother, Chris, and niece, Elsa, who turns 4 this weekend; his uncle Barry Combs, who's into genealogy and family history; and Aunt Kathy, who's getting a bit of relief from caring for Funkhouser when he visits.
Meanwhile, he's assistant stage manager for “Evil Dead: The Musical” four days a week at the Playhouse. His jobs include a long preshow checklist: testing microphones, prepping smoke machines, filling the fake-blood tanks that spray cast and audience members.
Greg Combs explains the pressurized system used to spray blood onto the actors and the audience in "Evil Dead: the Musical."
He's busy during the show too — catching an actress as she falls through a door toward backstage or waving branches through a window to play the part of a killer tree.
Afterward, the Disney vice president grabs a mop and cleans up the disgusting fake-blood mess.
“I said I felt bad, what he was doing,” Gibilisco said. “But he's happy as a pig in slop. He's unplugging from the craziness of the job back in California.”
Combs said “Evil Dead” is loony fun — the perfect show to work on as he clears his head and renews his love of storytelling. He gets a charge out of watching the audience react. He also worked on lights in the set for “All Night Strut,” a musical revue that opened on the Playhouse main stage Friday. Gibilisco said he's a godsend.
Disney has sent Combs all over the world. Twice his family lived for extended periods in Tokyo while he worked on a Disney theme park there. In between he worked on Hong Kong Disneyland. Next up is a new theme park in Shanghai, and he'll likely move overseas again.
“We're part mad scientists and part artists,” Combs said of Disney Imagineering. “But first and foremost we tell a story.”
Among many projects, Combs was set designer for Disneyland's “Indiana Jones” attraction in California and for the “Twilight Zone” Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida.
As assistant stage manager four nights a week for "Evil Dead: The Musical," Combs has a long list of duties to carry out with other stagehands before and during each performance.
He said working at the Playhouse, and capturing his grandmother's stories, feels like an extension of what he does for a living.
“I admire Greg for pulling it off, taking the risk to make it happen,” Gibilisco said of the sabbatical. “I'd be afraid my job would get filled. But he'll go back and make things better. He'll turn this into something at Disney to help other people. He's always been a problem solver.”
And a storyteller. This sojourn to Omaha is giving Greg Combs family stories to hold onto, and another life story to tell.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1269, email@example.com