Cindy Lange-Kubick joined the Lincoln Journal Star in 1994 and has loved covering life in her hometown ever since. Will write for chocolate. Or coffee.

The couple from California are passengers in a forest green Chevy making its way toward Pioneers Park.

Tom Burman and Bari Dreiband Burman are multiple Emmy Award-winning makeup effects artists. They fell in love working on Natasha Kinski's transformation in "Cat People." They worked side-by-side behind the scenes on movies and TV shows like "Nip/Tuck" and "Grey's Anatomy."

"Every time you saw a pumping heart or a stitched wound or a pole through someone's limb, that was us," Tom explains.

They're retired now, and until last week, the West Coast lovers had never been to Nebraska. Now they're sitting in a city-owned SUV driven by Mark Canney, a planner for the Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department, their driver and tour guide for the day.

They've traveled from Santa Barbara to see the work of another artist.

Tom's dad.

Ellis Burman was a special effects artist, too. He helped create masks for "The Wolfman" and "Phantom of the Opera" and The Ice Capades and props for Abbott and Costello movies and plenty of westerns.

"He was the premier prop-maker of his time," says Tom, who is also famous in his field (but doesn't say so).

Ellis Burman isn't famous here, at least not by name, but Lincoln knows his work — landmarks that serve as place markers in the memories of generations.

Last Tuesday, the SUV swings into an oasis on the edge of town. It's a place Tom has only seen in black-and-white photos from the 1930s, back when these 668 acres of pine glory were seedlings surrounded by dirt.

"I was expecting it to be barren," he says, gazing out the window as they wind past duck ponds and bike paths in a sea of green.

"Oh, it's so beautiful," says Bari. "What a park."

Their driver pulls the Trailblazer into a parking lot, a place where thousands of families have unloaded station wagons and minivans for picnics and ballgames, family reunions and birthday parties.

Everyone looks east.

"Ohh," Bari says. "There it is!"

* * *

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"Rebecca at the Well" at Sunken Gardens

"Rebecca at the Well," a sculpture by Ellis Burman, was located in Lincoln's Sunken Gardens. It was retired from display in 2004 because of significant deterioration.

The government brought Ellis Burman to Lincoln.

The country was pulling itself out of the Great Depression and it needed a rope. One of the strands in that lifeline was called the WPA. The Works Progress Administration had an arts arm that brought murals and sculptures and paintings to cities and towns across the land.

Lincoln's leaders sought out a young sculptor from Toledo, Ohio, and the government paid him $50 a week to create art for its parks.

* Rebecca at the Well in the newly created Sunken Gardens.

* A towering marble-coated memorial War & Victory in Antelope Park.

* Pioneer Woman, willowy and elegant, gracing 33rd Street in the long, narrow strip called Antelope Park South.

* And The Smoke Signal, a 15-foot, five-ton replica of Chief Red Cloud cast in bronze-colored concrete.

"The statue stands facing away from the city — away from civilization, toward his tribe in the southwest," reads a 1976 history of Pioneers Park. "The structure is on a high, natural rock ledge, overlooking the picnic grounds, at its back is the pine forest ..."

Tuesday, the Burmans look at the statue in the distance, the figure of a chief waving a blanket over a fire.

Canney explains how time and the elements wore the sandstone away ... the toll from climbing children, the thieves that kept breaking off the concrete feathers.

Tom and Bari climb the hill for a close-up look. Tom is 76, dressed in a loose shirt and leather boat shoes. Bari wears sunglasses and carries a polka-dot purse.

They've been married 32 years.

"This was always on his bucket list," Bari says. "He kept saying he was going to do it, he was going to do it."

But something always got in the way.

Then it was time. And earlier this summer, Bari picked up the phone and called. It took persistence, she says, but eventually, she got Parks Director Lynn Johnson on the line with Canney listening in.

They talked about Ellis and his work and Bari made a request: Can I have Mark for the day?

* * *

Last week, the couple flew to Denver and rented a car. They stopped in Grand Island to see one of Ellis Burman's works in the rotunda of the Stuhr Museum — a life-sized sculpture of a Sioux man shaping arrows while a woman and child watched.

"My mom was one of the models," Tom says. "So was my sister."

Tom is the youngest of five children. All of his siblings were born in the middle of the country — Nebraska, Ohio, Michigan — but he arrived after his parents packed up and moved to Hollywood.

He's not sure exactly why Ellis and Dorothy — the daughter of a deputy coroner and insurance investigator — left the state, but he knows that two of his sisters had bouts with pneumonia and his brother was frail.

"That might have played into it," he says, "and my dad always loved the idea of the ocean."

His father kept a few photographs from his Lincoln days. One showed Tom's brother on the lap of an Indian chief during the Sept. 12, 1935, dedication of The Smoke Signal — an event attended by members of the Omaha, Ponca, Sioux and Winnebago tribes who arrived on horseback and camped in tipis in the days leading up to the ceremony.

Others show his father in a studio, sculpting a clay model of a statue that loomed over the artist and always loomed large in his son's imagination.

"You're looking at pictures for 70 years and then you're standing in front of it," Tom says. "It's hard to describe."

* * *

+5 
Smoke Signal

Sculptor Ellis Burman stands with the clay model of The Smoke Signal. He used Agricultural Hall at the then-state fairgrounds in Lincoln as a studio.

Ellis stands on the left in a line of four men posing for a photo in Pioneers Park, his legs spread wide.

His hair is black, his mustache trim. In his double-breasted suit, he looks the part of a '30s gangster.

But then they all do.

His father was a rebel, Tom says. A loner who didn't trust many, his stories laced with pain.

His mother had been a sculptress and socialite in Toledo, and his father was a doctor. When Ellis was 15, they both died, his mother a victim of the influenza pandemic, his father from pernicious anemia.

That same year, his favorite grandfather — a ship captain — drowned in a storm.

"He was basically an orphan," Tom says.

An orphan who went off to the Art Institute of Chicago — where he met Dorothy — and who was set to inherit his family's fortune when he turned 21.

But the money was nearly gone when the time came, squandered by his guardian uncles, Tom says.

"He carried that his whole life."

His father didn't value his work — and never charged what it was worth — but he had great talent, his son says.

"He did a hippo and a big alligator, crazy stuff. He made three T. rexes for the 1948 film, 'The Unknown Island.'" (Operated by men stationed inside their bellies.)

For decades, he created props in studios and garages behind the family's homes in Santa Monica and Burbank and Laguna Beach — his children and wife pitching in to make rubber rifles and knives, spears, swords and battle axes.

"We worked with every toxic chemical known to man," Tom says. "I remember rolling mercury around in my mouth."

He remembers movie stars stopping by for drinks. Claude Rains or Lon Chaney in the living room.

"Growing up in the film business, it was no big thing."

* * *

+5 
Planting for pollinators

Mayor Chris Beutler speaks in front of the Pioneer Woman sculpture in Antelope Park. 

Tom started his career in makeup effects as an apprentice in 1966.

He's working on a documentary now tracing his career. "Making Apes: The Artists who Changed Film," is the working title, a nod to his work on the 1968 film "Planet of the Apes."

From the driver's seat of the Trailblazer, Canney — "To this day I have nightmares about that movie!" — peppers him with questions.

"Who was the nicest person on the set?" ("Roddy McDowell.")

"What TV shows did you work on?" ("Too many to count.")

Tom and his brother both followed their father's lead. And all three of Tom's sons — Robert, Barney and Maxx — have successful careers in the business.

He and Bari have 60 Emmy nominations and 11 Emmys between them.

"Tom is a legendary figure in our industry," Bari says.

"She was one of the first women makeup artists," Tom answers back. "We made the perfect team."

Before the couple board a flight back to Santa Barbara, they visit the Nebraska State Historical Society and pore over a collection of photos of a young artist and his work.

They have lunch at the Sunken Gardens, sitting under the copper dome, the weathered remains of Rebecca at the Well buried in the earth beneath them.

They drive past a red-brick house on Washington Street, where Ellis and Dorothy and their children occupied apartment No. 4 while he worked creating beauty in a young city.

Ellis Burman died in 1974. The 72-year-old had been in poor health. He smoked too much. He drank.

Looking back, his son sees a man in pain, but he doesn't think his father realized it.

"He really was a genius about his art," Tom says. "And I think the stuff he did in Lincoln was one of the highlights of his life."

Back home in California, Tom Burman was still processing his trip Friday, the close-ups of those enduring pieces of his father's work.

"It was quite emotional," he said. "I don't know why it took me so long to get there."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @TheRealCLK.

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