Mention the Lazy Leopard, the Bird Cage, the Crest or the Crystal Tree dining rooms, and it signaled that a night on the town was in store at the New Tower Inn.
Omaha’s first motel evolved and sprawled to five blocks along the east side of 78th Street between Dodge and Cass Streets. It began as an amenity to Peony Park and took on a life of its own in the early 1960s.
Wedding receptions, high school banquets, couples nights and, yes, singles nights for the mostly 40-and-older crowd, the New Tower was the place. It was distinctive, lasting into the era of hotel chains using the same design for every location.
The New Tower’s front lobby had a Normandy castle motif with great stone walls, heraldic crests and wood-burning fireplace. The massive beams and lofty ceilings carried over into the Crest dining room . Chateaubriand, chops, frog legs and kebabs were among the entrees advertised in 1963.
The Crest became the Crystal Tree in 1973. It owed everything to ABC canceling the “Julie Andrews Hour” variety show. Owner Frank Blazek purchased the glittering crystal tree that Andrews used on the show and it became the focal point of the renovated, renamed restaurant.
The Lazy Leopard Lounge and Spear Bar featured live acts and dancing. Musical acts included the likes of Las Vegas performers the Ink Spots, the Sammy Stevens Trio and Two Hearts and Brotherhood. The room doubled in size in 1979 and second dance floor was added in 1992.
The Bird Cage piano lounge, decorated as the name suggests, was a sing-along bar.
The Lazy Leopard had its 15 minutes of national fame in 1990. After President George H.W. Bush visited Peony Park for a breakfast fundraiser for Gov. Kay Orr, Newsweek magazine ran an item about the White House press corps being disgruntled about not being put up at the same hotel as the presidential party:
“Big cities where there are nice digs for everyone are OK, but the smaller towns are something else. Last week in Omaha, reporters were booked into a $35-a-night (hotel) featuring a bar called the Lazy Leopard. Bush, meanwhile, was ensconced in the relative luxury of the nearby Marriott.”
Blazek shook it off. He heard no complaints from those in the 100 rooms given a discounted rate. “The bulk of the people were very happy,” he told The World-Herald. “Someone was just teed off because they weren’t in a room next to the president.”
How it began
Before Joe Malec (from Peony Park) and Adolph Musil (Blazek’s father-in-law) opened the Tower Tourist Village in 1936, the westernmost places to stay in Omaha were the Blackstone and Colonial Hotels on Farnam Street and the D.L.D. Tourist Camp with “modern, heated” cabins at 63rd and Center Streets across from the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum and Thoroughbred racetrack.
The Tower village was an idea the Malec family and Musil had since 1930 and the widening of Dodge Street/West Dodge Road to a four-lane “superhighway” came along at the right time. The namesake tower, floodlit at night, was art deco and rose 58 feet above a Skelly Oil service station on the corner of 78th and Dodge.
Drawn by Omaha architect Edward Sessinghaus, plans were for 20 two-room heated apartments with attached garages, additional one-room units and a “community house” with rooms. A 1935 World-Herald article for the apartments listed the amenities — “hot and cold running water, bathroom facilities including shower, electric cooking plate or oil stove, radio, telephone, bed with double-deck coil springs and inner-spring mattress, studio couch and other furniture. A few will have electric refrigerators.” Nightly rates for the apartments were $1.50.
The landmark tower came down in 1956, replaced by a swimming pool and a building along Dodge that housed the Eiffel Tower dining room, Washington Tower coffee shop and the Leaning Tower cocktail lounge. Those went away by 1965.
The next expansion for the now-named New Tower Hotel Court was in 1962-63. It included the Crest Room, the Frontier coffee shop, the Lazy Leopard, the Bird Cage and the Omaha Room banquet room. There were 250 hotel and motel rooms.
Frank Blazek (1913-2006) and son, Skip, had a $450,000 two-story addition built in 1973 that included 40 new rooms and an indoor pool covered by a glass dome.
All good things come to an end
The end for the New Tower came in 1997. It was hit hard by the closings of Ak-Sar-Ben and Peony Park. The five blocks became the Tower Plaza strip mall, now anchored by Duluth Trading, so the Tower name does live on.
For Marty Crowley and his wife of 55 years, Carolanne Hadfield, it will never fade away. They met in 1965 when he was an airman stationed at Offutt Air Force Base and had a part-time job at the Lazy Leopard. He wrote he happened to be a fill-in “when a sweet and great looking young lady stuck her head through the window from the Crest dining room to get drinks for a table, and I was immediately smitten.”
Crowley married the Omaha University coed, stayed in Omaha and was in the Omaha Police Department for 28 years, rising to deputy chief. He retired and was Boys Town’s police chief for 18 years.
“We are both so happy that we met all those years ago at the New Tower in Peony Park,” Crowley wrote.