The Rose Theater and Rose Blumkin's Nebraska Furniture Mart

Burt Street Trail

Commerce, Economy & Work Migration & Immigration Women's History

The Rose Theater, in its mid-20th-century incarnation as the Astro Theater.

Courtesy of Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, Omaha, Nebraska.

When Rose Blumkin (1893–1998) heard that Creighton University was seeking the City of Omaha, Nebraska’s permission to demolish the old Astro Theater, in her thick Yiddish accent she told her daughter, “I want that building should stay.” “They must have had golden hands and wonderful brains to build that building.” [1] Blumkin bought the building in 1981 and saved it from the wrecking ball, and in 1993 she donated it to the Omaha Theater Company, which stages performances for children and youth. [2]

Surely John Eberson (1875–1954), the architect who designed the building in 1926, would have appreciated Blumkin's compliment. He pioneered a style of cinemas called the “atmospheric theater,” and in the 1920s he built almost 100 of them—movie palaces whose architecture transported theatergoers to the Mediterranean. [3] The Western Islamic and Italian Renaissance accents on the facade of The Riviera—as the Rose Theater was first known—evoked those coastal towns of France and Italy. Inside, a projector sent clouds and stars moving across the smooth plaster of the auditorium’s ceiling. [4]

By the time Blumkin stepped in to save the building, it had gone through several transformations, including being repurposed as a mini-golf course during the Depression, and was known as the Astro Theater. For years, Rose had walked past the theater in its various incarnations, on her way to the downtown location of her famous furniture store, the Nebraska Furniture Mart. “You don’t tear off such a beautiful building,” she remarked, before vowing to restore it to its former glory. [5] To do so would require a formidable investment, but Blumkin had the money—and she would have millions of dollars more in just two years’ time, after selling a majority stake in the Nebraska Furniture Mart to Omaha billionaire Warren Buffet.

Rose Gorelick was born in 1893 in the small Belarussian village of Schidrin. She learned the retail business from her mother, who supported the family of 10 by running a small grocery store, while her father, a rabbi, devoted himself to scholarly pursuits. [6] Rose showed a talent for mathematics and accounting from an early age, and when she was 13, she left Schidrin for the bigger city of Gomel. She found a job at a general store owned by a Jewish family, and worked there until she was 20 years old, when she met and married a shoe salesman named Isadore Blumkin. [7]

Ever since Rose was a little girl, she had wanted to immigrate to the United States—a notion shared by her husband. The Blumkins had enough money for only one ticket across the Atlantic, however, so they decided Isadore should go ahead and meet up with Rose's brothers, who had moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa, a few years before. The idea was that they would continue to save money, and she would follow shortly thereafter. But it was 1914, and while for the Blumkins it was the beginning of a marriage, for Europe it was the beginning of World War I. [8]

Belarus was in the Russian Empire, where, since 1791, Jews had been forced to live in a constrained area called the Pale of Settlement, which spanned roughly from modern-day Latvia to Ukraine. "Into the 19th century,” writes historian Shari Rabin, "European governments—especially Russia, the Habsburg Empire, and the German states—continued to regulate mobility and to differentiate among Jews and other groups.” They would "reinforce borders, monitor movement, and identify and surveil citizens, residents, and foreigners alike through internal passes, external passports, and a variety of other documents.” [9] For Rose and 2 million other Jews who emigrated from the Pale of Settlement, the United States represented a place where they could travel freely, settle where they wanted and make a life that was not constrained by antisemitism. [10]

While Isadore safely made it across the Atlantic to Iowa, Rose was stuck in wartime Belarus, which was not a safe place for Jews. Many Russian army commanders and soldiers held the antisemitic view that Jews were unreliable, unpatriotic and spying for the enemy, and so they initiated mass deportation policies that evicted over a million Jews from their homes. They also led pogroms in Jewish communities, where they looted homes and businesses, committed violence against civilian Jews and sexually assaulted women. [11]

In 1916, Blumkin took her chances and snuck out of Russia, without a passport. She decided to go east, towards the Pacific Ocean. The Atlantic crossing was difficult and dangerous because of the war; most ships were transporting soldiers and supplies, and boats were regularly being sunk by enemy navies. Blumkin took the Trans-Siberian Railroad across the vast expanse of Russia. At the border with China, when a Russian soldier asked to see Blumkin's passport, she told him she was going to procure leather for the army. She sweetened it with a little bribe—promising to bring him back a bottle of vodka. The soldier let Blumkin go, and she continued by rail to the coast of China. From there she took a boat to Yokohama, Japan, where she found she was not the only Jew waiting for passage to the United States—many others had risked the same trip east. Blumkin booked a ticket to Seattle on a cargo ship carrying peanuts and then boarded another train to Fort Dodge, Iowa, to meet her brothers and husband.

Blumkin spoke no English when she arrived in the United States—just Yiddish and Russian. There were very few Jews in Fort Dodge, and she found herself with few people with whom she could converse. So in 1919, she encouraged Isadore to move the family—by then they had children—to Omaha. [12]

Jews had begun settling in Omaha shortly after its founding in 1854, and by the 1920s, Omaha had a sizable Jewish community approaching around 10,000 people, or 5% of the city’s population. [13] The Blumkins settled in a highly entrepreneurial Jewish community and opened up a second-hand clothing store. [14] They saved up their earnings and slowly brought the rest of their family members over from Russia; the family was completely reunited by 1922. During the 1920s, Rose also started to learn English from her four children, though with her family and predominantly Jewish customers she mostly spoke Yiddish.

After a decade in business, the Great Depression hit; Isadore and Rose had to get creative about how to keep the shop profitable. Realizing that customers had little expendable income but still needed clothing, Rose devised a unique sale: For $5, you could buy an entire men’s outfit from the Blumkin’s shop. She flyered the town with 10,000 advertisements, making sure everyone in Omaha and neighboring Council Bluffs knew about the bargains they could find if they shopped with her. [15]

In 1937, Rose parlayed this savvy into a new venture that she called Nebraska Furniture Mart. With a $500 investment from her brother, she began sourcing wholesale furniture that she could sell at only a 10% markup. According to author Yefei Lu, an investor who has closely studied some of Warren Buffets best investments, the Nebraska Furniture Mart model is comparable to that of Aldi and Walmart; by selling at the lowest prices, Blumkin attracted more customers and sold more furniture than her competitors, thereby accumulating greater profits and market share. [16]

The model was successful from the outset, but like any business, there were moments of struggle during economic downturns and periods of growth. Her children recall their mother selling furniture from their own home when she had supply issues, and Blumkin took loans over the years from the Independent Workmen’s Loan Association—a small, local membership organization of Jewish businesspeople that provided mutual aid in the form of interest-free loans—as well as banks when she had liquidity issues or wanted to expand. [17]

In 1945, after bouncing around a few downtown storefronts, Nebraska Furniture Mart relocated to 2205 Farnam St., just down the block from the Astro Theater. Rose and Isadore’s children grew up working in the store, and in the 1940s, they and their spouses took on bigger roles in the business—their son Louie eventually became President. For the next 25 years, the family worked together at the Farnam Street store. Nebraska Furniture Mart opened a second location on South 72nd Street in 1971, and a decade later, they decided to consolidate and closed the downtown location. By this time, their 200,000 square feet of retail floor space was generating $100 million a year. [18]

Business was booming, but Blumkin was approaching her 90th birthday and felt that selling part of the business was in the best interest of both Nebraska Furniture Mart and her family. In a handshake deal, Blumkin sold a 90% stake in the company to Omaha investor Warren Buffett in 1983. Because of her age, Buffett did not include a non-compete clause in the deal—a mistake he would never make again. Angry at her grandchildren, who had since become executives in the business and wanted her to retire, she opened Mrs. B’s Clearance and Factory Mart across 72nd Street from Nebraska Furniture Mart. Buffett stepped in to mediate and heal the family rift by also buying Mrs. B’s. [19]

Blumkin ended up working at Nebraska Furniture Mart until 1997, when she finally retired. She died the following year at the age of 104. [20] Her legacy lives on in the Rose Theater. After donating the building to the Omaha Theater Company, years of careful restoration revived Eberson’s atmospheric architecture for a new generation of theatergoers. Today, families can attend performances of shows like “Corduroy” and “The Sound of Music,” and children and teens can take drama and musical theater classes, or even act in a show. Much more than a beautiful building, The Rose Theater embodies Blumkin’s commitment to the community that cared for her. 


  • [1] Associated Press (AP), “Omahan to Restore Old Astro Theater,” Lincoln Journal Star, June 10, 1981, 42.
  • [2] Associated Press (AP), “Theater Donated,” The Lincoln Star, September 24, 1993, 17.
  • [3] Celeste M. Williams and Dietmar E. Froehlich, "John Eberson and the Development of the Movie Theater: Fantasy and Escape,” 91st ACSA International Conference, July 27–30, 2003, 572-78.
  • [4] Richard Pittenger, "Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Center,” Cinema Treasures, accessed July 5, 2021,
  • [5] AP, “Omahan to Restore Old Astro Theater.”
  • [6] Yefei Lu, Inside the Investments of Warren Buffet: Twenty Cases (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 105; Lawrence A. Cunningham, Berkshire Beyond Buffet: The Enduring Value of Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 72–73 ; Roy Briggs, Interview with Rose Gorelick Blumkin,
  • [7] Briggs, Interview with Rose Gorelick Blumkin.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Shari Rabin, Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth Century America (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 16.
  • [10] Rabin, Jews on the Frontier, 4–6; Shmuel Ettinger, “Jewish Emigration in the 19th Century,” My Jewish Learning, accessed July 12, 2021,
  • [11] Eric Lohr, "The Russian Army and the Jews: Mass Deportation, Hostages, and Violence during World War I,” The Russian Review 60, no. 3 (July 2011), 404–5, 415.
  • [12] Briggs, Interview with Rose Gorelick Blumkin.
  • [13] Oliver B. Pollack, “Communal Self-Help and Capital Formation: Omaha’s Jewish Loan Associations, 1911–1979," American Jewish History 78, no. 1 (September 1988), 20.
  • [14] Carol Gendler, “The Jews of Omaha: The First Sixty Years” (M.A. Thesis, University of Nebraska-Omaha, 1968), 1–3, 6–9, 33, 74–99.
  • [15] Lu, Inside the Investments, 105; Cunningham, Berkshire Beyond Buffet, 73; Barnaby J. Feder, “Rose Blumkin, Retail Queen, Dies at 104,” The New York Times, August 13, 1998.
  • [16] Lu, 107–8.
  • [17] Pollack, “Communal Self-Help and Capital Formation," 23–27, 32–33.
  • [18] Briggs, Interview with Rose Gorelick Blumkin; Cunningham, Berkshire Beyond Buffet, 74.
  • [19] Cunningham, 74–5.
  • [20] Feder, “Rose Blumkin, Retail Queen, Dies at 104.”
  • [21] “History of the Rose Theater,” The Rose Theater, accessed October 20, 2021,

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