Unwrapping her ‘niche’ business

When a Los Angeles film production company needed vintage wrapping paper for a scene in a movie about a talking teddy bear, the prop master beckoned a stay-at-home mom in the Omaha suburbs.

It’s been a year and a half since Kim Brokke of La Vista got that call — and almost a week since “Ted” made its debut at No. 1 at the box office — and she’s still laughing about the fact that her product, with such humble origins, ended up in a Hollywood movie.

A corner, just behind the family room, in the basement of Brokke’s two-story home is Sweet Vintage Wrapping Paper’s headquarters, warehouse and distribution center. Boxes packed with her vintage reproduction paper are stacked several feet high.

Her “satellite office” is the main-floor laundry room, on a counter across from the super-duty washing machine (with five kids ages 9 to 18, laundry is on a constant rotation). A color-coded calendar in the mudroom helps Brokke keep track of her activities — she sings and plays

the harp at church, funerals and weddings and performs the national anthem at sporting events — and those of her kids.

“It’s just a total nuthouse,” she said. “It’s usually just me here yelling at the kids telling them to let the dogs out.”

Customers often assume Brokke’s one-woman operation is a large, stand-alone business, she said.

When the prop master for Media Rights Capital, which produced “Ted” and then sold it to Universal Pictures, contacted her, he probably didn’t realize he was calling a woman who likely had just been scrubbing dishes or folding underwear, said Brokke, 49.

After Media Rights Capital bought her paper, Brokke didn’t hear from the company again. She didn’t know how — or if — they’d use her product. She saw the result while sitting in a west Omaha theater on opening weekend.

In “Ted,” a young boy (who as an adult is played by Mark Wahlberg) makes a Christmas wish that his teddy bear would come to life. It does, and most of the R-rated movie centers on the bizarre friendship between Ted and Wahlberg’s character.

Brokke chuckles and blushes at the irony that Ted, a weed-smoking, foul-mouthed companion, was wrapped in a piece of her religious paper, with four angels praying around a glowing baby Jesus.

Even so, “when he started unwrapping Ted, it was stunning,” Brokke said. “I sat there and thought, ‘This was once just an idea on a dining room table.’ “

Brokke started Sweet Vintage Wrapping Paper a few years ago, after discovering that no one, it seemed, sold reproductions of vintage paper. She was decorating for a fundraiser and anniversary celebration at St. Gerald Catholic School in Ralston. She wanted to adorn the walls with gifts covered in what looked like aged wrappings, but she couldn’t find the paper to do so.

“After the auction, I found that all you could find was musty stuff and little pieces on eBay,” Brokke said. “So I figured, 45Why don’t I do it?’ “

Brokke already had a collection of vintage wrapping paper and scrapbooks that she started when she was 12, using money she earned detasseling corn. She contacted an attorney and the U.S. Copyright Office to figure out the legal details for reproducing cards and paper.

Brokke looked for a local printing company with little luck at first. Eventually, she found Barnhart Press, a century-old Omaha business.

“It seemed like a neat project,” said John Hafermann, a Barnhart sales representative. “We thought it was a great idea. I’m sure there’s a niche for it.”

Sweet Vintage Wrapping Paper has found a small but growing niche among film companies, boutique stores and customers looking for American-made goods. Some find her online at www.sweetvintagewrappingpaper.com.

About a month ago, 20th Century Fox bought wrapping paper from Brokke, she said, for a coming Ben Stiller movie, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which is based on the 1939 short story by James Thurber.

She said a prop master for the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” which is set in New Jersey during the Prohibition, wanted to use her wedding paper for an episode, but she said it didn’t match the era of the show.

As a former high school history teacher, Brokke uses details, such as colors, symbols and hairstyles, to date the original paper and cards. She determined a sheet of her Christmas paper was from the World War II era because of its red patriotic stars, for example.

Even her paper and cards without the stars are patriotic in their own right. All of the vintage designs are distinctly American, the printing is done in Omaha and the packaging, of course, is done at Brokke’s central command in La Vista.

She affixes a “Made in the USA” sticker to her packages and hand-writes a “thank you” to each customer.

Brokke has yet to draw a salary as an entrepreneur. Like the detasseling income that paid for her collecting hobby as a child, the wages Brokke makes as a singer and harpist fund Sweet Vintage.

“Everybody thinks since (the paper is) going to be used in two movies that I’ll be rolling in” money, she said. That’s not the case — the movie companies pay $5 per sheet, just like any customer, and Brokke signs a waiver saying she won’t sue for proceeds from the movie.

“It will take me years to pay off what we invested,” she said of herself and her husband, Greg, accounting director at Kiewit Corp.

An interior designer recommended that Brokke expand into printing tablecloths and other textiles. She’d like to, she said, but “I don’t have the time or energy to research this stuff.”

After all, she has her kids’ music lessons and ball games to make it to.

The calendar in the mudroom says so.

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