Battered, fried and greasy shrimp in a brown paper sack with saltines and hot sauce. Pork chops fried in a special batter and smothered with gravy. Crisp, hot french fries you could eat without katsup and still love. And a few gunfights in the 1970s. Following is a history of North Omaha’s Live Wire Cafe.
Shrimp-In-A-Bag and More
In the late 1960s, North Omaha was changing fast. After the first riots happened in 1966, white people began moving out of the entire community between Cuming Street and Kansas Avenue as fast as they could. Over the next four years of civil unrest, mroe than 100 businesses were boarded up, dozens of churches were cleared out and literally more than 1,000 houses were practically abandoned. So, that a business opened and thrived for more than a decade starting in the late 1960s is exceptional. That business was the Live Wire Cafe.
Opened as a cafe at the turn of the 20th century, the joint became became the University Cafe in the 1920s. In 1938, that place closed when the University of Omaha moved away. After all the restaurant supplies were auctioned off, the storefront became an upholstery shop, and then a beauty shop opened by Ann Banks.
Leroy and Ethel Webb opened the Live Wire Cafe there in 1968. Located at 3713 North 24th Street between Pratt and Manderson Streets, from the 1960s through the early 1980s, it was a great place to eat that a lot of people loved.
Ms. Ethel would cook whenever she wanted, and wasn’t open with regular hours. Vetra Lee Luckey was one of her waitresses in the 1980s. The $5 shimp-in-a-bag at Live Wire was the stuff of legends, with jumbo shrimp deep-friend with a special coating, packed into a greasy brown paper sack with hot sauce if you wanted. More than 20 years after they closed, the pork chop sandwiches with mayo, cheese and lettuce still make some people swoon. Live Wire’s hamburgers are remembered fondly, and their french fries were spectacular.
Demonstrating that Black culture isn’t all the same, in recent conversations on social media a lot of people noted how Live Wire’s food was different from the food at the Fair Deal Cafe and other Black-owned restaurants in North O.
In February 1968, Ethel Webb was sleeping in an upstairs apartment when she heard noises in the cafe. She saw five young men breaking into the back of the building, and fired a shot into the air. The burglars ran away, leaving broken glass from the jukebox and vending machines everywhere. They’d looted the machines and ran.
Live Wire Cafe survived the rioting that targeted so many other businesses along North 24th between 1966 and 1969, but that didn’t make them immune to crime. According to the Omaha World-Herald, a few gunfights ensued over the coming decade…
In October 1972, a pair of men came into the restaurant and ordered food. After it it, they complained about the prices and got up to leave without paying. Apparently, the men both drew guns and shot at Leroy, who was confronting them as they were leaving. Leroy dove into the kitchen under cover from his wife, who was shooting at the men with a small .22 caliber handgun. Leroy pulled out a shotgun and fired at the men, but they escaped.
Just two months later, in December 1972, there was another incident when two men into the restaurant after they’d been drinking out front. After ordering food, one of the men put his head on a counter and began falling asleep. Leroy warned him to keep his head up or leave the restaurant. The man got up and walked towards Leroy threateningly, so Leroy pulled out a handgun and told him to stay back. When he didn’t stop walking toward him, Leroy shot the man in the chest. Police were called, the man was taken to Immanuel Hospital, and Leroy was questioned. No charges were ever filed.
In at least one case, the couple didn’t shoot anyone. 1983, the restaurant was bilked out of $50 in a scam. According to the Omaha World-Herald, a man ordered a big meal worth that much. When he was finished, he plopped down what appeared to be five rolls of quarters and left the Live Wire. Soon after, Ethel discovered that instead of quarters, the wrappers were filled with slugs, and simply had quarters on the ends of them. The Webbs reported the crime to the police, and discovered the man had done the same at a few other businesses in town. It doesn’t look like anyone was ever caught for this crime.
Alas, time took its toll and at some point after 1986, the Live Wire Cafe closed. I haven’t found anything more about what happened to Leroy Webb or his wife Ethel Webb, the owner-operators of Live Wire Cafe in North Omaha.
The restaurant closed after 1986, but I haven’t tracked down when. Around 2000, a delivery service ran from the address, and in that year, Horace Bethea bought the building for $11,000. Bethea asked the City of Omaha for a permit to open a “social club” there in 2013. In 2016, he filed for bankruptcy.
Today, it looks like there’s nothing happening there. A man named Jerry Deabler who lives in Missouri owns the building. Built as a St. Louis flat-style apartment building, today its listed as having just two units – one on each floor. There is more than 2,300 square feet in the building.