Culture: Writers Picks


Best Place to Let Down Your Long Hair

Former SFMOMA board chair Steven Oliver doesn’t often invite the public onto the golden grass and under the stellar oaks of his art-studded Geyserville ranch. But he makes a few annual exceptions for events that benefit area arts organizations. And so it was last fall that some 125 lucky Santa Rosa Symphony supporters were able to board coaches and take the windy journey to Oliver Ranch in order to hear the premiere of Purnati, a new work for the Kronos Quartet by Indonesian composer Rahayu Supanggah that had been commissioned by Oliver and his wife, Nancy.

The concert took place inside the Anne Hamilton tower that Oliver had erected specifically to host performances—an arts space suitable for Rapunzel. Eight stories and 80 feet high, the cylindrical tower is open to the air at the top, mounting a reflecting pool at the bottom. Inside the cement structure are two staircases curving up its flanks like the double helix strands of DNA. Audience members seat themselves on one strand; performers situate themselves on the other, meaning that in the case of the Purnati performance, the audience could see one, perhaps two musicians. What mattered was the music.

My fear of heights surmounted by my claustrophobia, I climbed to the top of the tower, clutching the balustrade at the top in the warmth of the fading afternoon sun. With eyes closed, I heard the music float viscously up from the tower’s interior, as pristine and intact as though the notes were enclosed in golden bubbles. Look up and see the blue of the sky, the architecture of the surrounding oaks. Look down and see violaist Hank Dutt concentrating over his page, poised soon to zim the chimes. Close eyes, and it’s back to Rapunzel, no longer pining alone in the tower.—G.G.

Best Place to stand in an inch of beer

Some rooms give back the magic, the interplay between performer and audience as palpable as that between lovers. McNear’s Mystic Theatre, your top pick for best music venue and best place to dance in Sonoma County, is one of those rooms. Built in 1911 and originally home to vaudeville, the Mystic has a sweet balcony, floor seating, its own double-sided bar and a commodious wooden dance floor where it is possible to stand, entirely transfixed, in a full inch of spilled beer at the feet of that night’s deeply felt love interest.

As with a lover, being at the Mystic means building memories: Dave Alvin, playing his best for buddy Chris Gaffney just a few years before Gaffney’s untimely death; Richard Thompson gleefully pounding out Britney Spears; the Blind Boys of Alabama bringing aides onstage to help keep the ebullient little old singers who hop when they sing from hopping directly off; Jonathan Richman playing a guitar borrowed from Tall Toad, next door; the Waifs, sisters Vicki Thorn and Donna Simpson, both hugely pregnant, balancing their instruments on their distended bellies; Robert Cray, his muscular biceps resplendently flexed as he recounts all the bad things a man can do in his life (and to his wife) to a roomful of men who bellow back . . .—G.G.

Best Way to Turn a Two-Bit Town into Austin

With the collapse of New College’s North Bay campus in 2008, many wondered what the fate would be of the fine brick building in Railroad Square that once housed the school. Signs of life appeared a few months later, as murmurings about a film series and the occasional punk-rock show began popping up. Turns out, this is the work of the North Bay Film and Art Collective. Helmed by filmmaker Eric McIntyre, along with collaborators Dave Fields, Celeste Turconi and Jessica Barry, the collective shares the goal of creating a hub for art, music and social action in Sonoma County.

McIntyre, an enthusiastic man who has funded some of the events through a combination of his own money and sweat equity, says, “A lot of artsy, cool hipsters are floating around up here now. When I was 20, it was, like, rednecks or hippies. We’re so ripe for this kind of venue. I guess some people say [Santa Rosa] is the new Austin.”

While the space has already played host to music and film events, the collective would like to put on more art shows and sustainability and educational series, as well as any other creative possibilities that might previously not have found a home. The ultimate goal is to have an inclusive space that fills the needs of the community.

The NBFAC arose from a simple attempt at neighborhood cleanup. McIntyre started doing landscaping around the empty building, which led to talks with Martin Hamilton, ex-president of New College. This jump-started a successful film series in 2009 and the collective’s incorporation as a project of the Arlene Francis Foundation, which owns the building. Now they are ready to transform into something larger. A gleeful challenge on their Facebook page declares, “We’re gonna change this two-bit town. Watch out!”

“I put that up there and then I was, like, that’s a really ambitious thing to say. Shoot, now we really have to do it,” Barry laughs. But if the events and ambitions manifested thus far by the collective are any sign, there is no doubt that they are on their way. 99 Sixth St., Santa Rosa.—L.C.

Best Collection of Pickled Lizards

“Warning: cherubic youngsters and those of the fairer sex and faint of heart may wish to avert their unworldly gaze from certain displays.” With that advisory, the general public is enjoined to peruse sideshows and curiosities at Santa Rosa’s Great West End and Railroad Square Handcar Regatta, which turns the dusty no-man’s land of the railroad yard around Depot Park into a Victorian fair in September. Sluggish steam engines and other marvels of science are on display, along with cryptic contraptions of dubious merit. But particularly curious, and true to that era of promiscuous collection-making, is the Victorian curio tent. Amid macabre art of the dolls-nailed-to-crucifixes variety, spectators found a menagerie of biological specimens: fish, snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, salamanders, insects and mammals. The pièce de résistance was simply a big jar full of pickled lizards. For what reason, I pondered, a jar full of blue-bellied lizards? A Sonoma State University student organizer, in her steampunk doppelganger guise as Dr. Korva Tempus, explained the wherefore, if not the why: “All the specimens came from the university’s museum collection. We raided shelves and cabinets in the vertebrate collection for bird skins, bats, various reptile and mammal skulls, a cat skeleton, giant snake skins—and anything else creepy we could find.” At next year’s event, warns Dr. Tempus, “I would like to take everything to the next level.” The Regatta is slated for Sept. 26 this—J.K.

Best Gay Square Dancing

There is nothing square about the dancing engaged in by members of the Redwood Rainbows square-dancing club. With the emphasis on the rarified cardio-friendly art of old-time and Western square dancing, the Redwood Rainbows welcome straight dancers to join the fun several times a week at a variety of locations, including the Ballroom in Rohnert Park, just one of the hosts of Sonoma County’s thriving, GLBT square-dancing club, where do-si-doers, with and without their own live-in dance partners, can enjoy the dances that terrified so many of us in junior high.—D.T.

Best Sing-Along

Before Renée Fleming’s performance at Festival del Sole last year, attendees at the Castella di Amorosa were handed a program libretto with complete, translated lyrics. “Not so you can sing along,” joked the usher. But lo! After a dazzling performance that’s become the hallmark of Festival del Sole, including pieces by Richard Strauss and George Gershwin, Fleming successfully encouraged the entire crowd in the castle courtyard to warble their best Eliza Doolittle and sing along to her encore of “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Imagine a crowd singing somewhat out of tune, among the vineyards of Napa Valley, in the open-air courtyard of a towering, opulent castle, with Renée Fleming! It was a like playing a game of catch with Nolan Ryan or finger-painting with Richard Diebenkorn or stretching a leg with Nijinsky. Was Maria Callas ever so populist? I think not.—G.M.

Best Preshow Curtain Speech

Ah, the curtain speech, that unique staple of live theater, the preshow monologue that jump-starts so many performances. The curtain speech contains those few moments of instructional cordiality in which some director, actor or board member addresses the audience just before the real show begins, and without which cell phones might never be turned off, actors could be blinded by flash-photographing yahoos, cookies and coffee and donated wine would never be sold, season subscriptions would never be purchased, emergency exits could never be located, and everyone would surely forget to “enjoy the show.” The curtain speech is an art form in and of itself, yet tragically most theaters put more thought into arranging the cups on the snack bar. Such is never the case at the Sonoma County Repertory Theater in Sebastopol, where the curtain speeches are always entertaining, high-energy, remarkably smooth and (gratefully) brief. “There is a philosophy behind how we do our curtain speeches,” says Rep managing director Amber Wallen. “When preparing our curtain speeches—which are always scripted and rehearsed—our main goal is to make the audience feel that they are a part of the family.” At the Rep, she explains, the audience’s experience lasts from the moment patrons buy their tickets to the time they go home. One notable element of each preshow speech at the Rep is how contagiously high-energy and pumped-up the speech-givers are. “We have found,” Wallen says, “that the best way to make an audience feel excited about the show they are about to see is for the people giving the curtain speech to be genuinely excited.” 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 707.823.0177.—D.T.

Best Place to Score Rad Art by Local Teens

The happily crowded galleries, the provocative art, the chai stand, the alley dancing, even the couch parade: all of this I anticipated at the annual outdoor Winterblast on South A Street in Santa Rosa, a cozy, frolicsome, late-November festival that pays tribute to the inspiration of local artists and quirky community. What I didn’t expect was the impressive display showcasing Santa Rosa’s most talented teen artists. After admiring artist Mary Vaughan’s paintings on old signs and game boards and grooving to the cacophonous syncopations of Earstu in an alley ablaze with marshmallow roasting and tortilla-firing pits, I went into the Imaginists Theatre where the temporary ARTery Gallery run by the innovative ARTstart program for teen artists was set up. As I grinned and pointed at the bright cartoon-like style of LoveHate, a sweet-cheeked girl—who I soon found out was the artist, 16-year-old Deanna Matthews of Elsie Allen High School—blushed behind me. At the end of the evening, I put money directly into her talented hands and went home with a playfully political painting of an anime feline purring “Blah blah blah.” Like the savory leftovers of the Handcar Regatta, with a persistent sofa-race-turned-parade undaunted by the pesky cars driving through, Winterblast is a (free!) invitation to celebrate the defiant spirit of artistic merry-making for its own sake.—J.D.

Best Place to Get a Side of Dead Parrot with Your Fish and Chips

Further proof that the Santa Rosa street-arts scene is not dead yet, it was just resting: pub/theater thespians and other habitués of the former Old Vic pub (d. 2003), which hosted popular revues, have long been itching to cross-dress and walk silly across the stage again. In October, they got their chance when Toad in the Hole Pub owner Paul Stokeld hosted the first annual Mostly Python Festival, “just for the purpose of general silliness.” With help from the Arts Council of Sonoma County, the festival closed off half a block of Fifth Street with hay bale risers, a stage and beer tents where a coveted grog in souvenir “Holy Grail” mugs was supplied. Actors played out a roster of scenes from the loony British television series that aired from the 1969 to 1974, and from movies like Life of Brian that are beloved—rabidly, quote-every-line beloved—by fans. This year’s Mostly Python has been bumped up to May 1. No word yet whether Spam will be on the menu, or even Spam and chips, Spam and mash and Spam salad—but be assured: anyone caught not drinking can stay and enjoy the show, too. 116 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 707.544.8623.—J.K.

Best Wet Whistle

As a little girl, my mother always warned me that “Mother Mary would cry if she heard girls whistling.” Boys were a different matter, however. Excluding sinful wolf whistles, the clearer and sweeter a man could whistle, the better. But I would bet my dear late mom that even the Mother of God would boogie down listening to the English Beat’s master man, Dave Wakeling. At a recent show at Santa Rosa’s Last Day Saloon, Wakeling’s wonderful whistling was pure, strong and clearly heard over the ska cacophony of the bands’ instruments. The 54-year-old frontman is a whistling tour de force, smiling broadly and exuding health and high energy while covering the ’80s catalogue of tunes that brought the band fame. Faves like “I Confess” and “Mirror in the Bathroom” always elicit whistles of approval from the audience grooving to the Beat. Now based in Marin County, Wakeling and the band appear a couple times a year at the LDS. The saloon has some hot happy hour deals, so you, too, can wet your whistle. If no seats are left, no worries—the Beat will keep you on your dancing feet all night long. Dave Wakeling and the English Beat appear Friday, April 2, at the Last Day Saloon. 120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 707.545.2343.—S.D.

Best ‘Bad’ Public Art

In art, one person’s offensively naked party-boy is another’s glorious statue of David. Your least favorite public edifice may be the very same art piece that made me fall in love with sculpture in the first place.

In downtown San Rafael, there is what looks like a slaughtered iron steer, reassembled with sinews and meat flaps all welded in place. The creation of Glen Ellen artist Bryan Tedrick, the conspicuously strange piece, ‘Bull,’ has been both delighting people and grossing them out for several months, alternately demanding to be stared at in disbelief while also crying out to be photographed, with thrilled kiddies perched upon the death-cow’s back. Before stampeding into its little courtyard, the sculpture was installed at Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa. Now it is the latest in a series of public artworks ensconced a few yards from the wall-of-water fountain thing that anchors the courtyard.

The question is, is this terrifying and beautiful Bull of Wonder an example of good art or bad art? The answer, of course, is yes. [Ed.’s Note: While freelancers might waffle, we love Brian Tedrick’s work.] 1000 Fourth St., San Rafael.—D.T.

Best Front-Page Declaration of Secession

It’s been two years since the Bureau of Reclamation took over the seven resorts around Lake Berryessa, and no one, and I mean no one, thinks that they’ve managed the situation well. After two years of the resorts being closed, of extremely limited boat access and an on-again, bungled-again deal with the Arizona-based Pensus Group Holding Co., Berryessa businesses are beleaguered beyond belief with empty promises from those in charge and the dearth of tourism dollars. Or, as the six-foot-high, American-flag-topped sign in front of an area gas station states, “No task or problem too small to boggle the minds of the Bureau of Reclamation’s management staff—It’s time for a change.”

Peter Kilkus has more than just a six-foot sign. He’s got the Lake Berryessa News, which he owns, edits and distributes all over the greater Lake Berryessa region. And thus it was, on July 4, 2009, the anniversary of our great nation’s Declaration of Independence, that Kilkus himself could accept the infiltration of federal agencies no longer, and sent out a rallying cry to his misrepresented people: “Lake Berryessa Region Declares Independence,” read the front-page headline, “Forms Republic of Napalachia.”

“Many Lake Berryessa region citizens feel as if they’ve long been treated as a colony, or an Indian reservation, where outside forces declare what they should believe and how they should live,” Kilkus wrote, less than half-jokingly. “Threats to close local schools, decades of mismanagement of local water and sewer infrastructure, continual infringement of local property rights, and the destruction of the Lake Berryessa economy and resorts have fed a growing frustration. The tipping point was the arbitrary and capricious decision on the part of three Napa County supervisors to deny the Lake Luciana Golf Course project in Pope Valley despite its overwhelming popular support among local residents.”At press time, an agreement is still not finalized between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Pensus Group, and the resorts around the lake remain closed. As for Napalachia? Its name lives on in a cartoon running in the Lake Berryessa News, but more importantly, its notion of rugged independence lives in the hearts and minds of the maligned citizens of Lake Berryessa.—G.M.

Best Gutenberg revamp

When Lauren Conrad, the Barbie-like star of the MTV reality show The Hills, showed up at the Petaluma outpost of Copperfield’s Books for a book signing in January, a line of fans, many with parents in tow, wrapped around the block. While Conrad already has a terrifyingly heavy draw among the tween set, Vicki DeArmon, Copperfields’ marketing director, attributes the crowd to an altogether 21st-century strategy: the use of Facebook and Twitter to advertise the event.

“Between that and what we were doing on the radio, it was off the charts,” says DeArmon, noting not only the large crowd—900 people showed up at final count—but that a veritable truckload of books were sold that night. Using a solidly established identity as a community gathering spot, combined with savvy use of web technologies, Copperfield’s has transformed into a truly modern bookstore.

DeArmon, along with a team of employees—including Ellen Skagerberg, who runs the bookstore’s 778-follower-strong Twitter page, and Facebook page administrators Amanda Brice and Patty Norman—embarked on a complete renovation of Copperfield’s web presence in 2009.

“We have an advantage because we have such a local customer base,” says DeArmon. “Your local bookstore is a community center, that’s the way people look at Copperfield’s. That has really worked well for us.”

Rather than running fearfully from new marketing tools, the team has embraced them with excited fervor. “The whole intent was to bring the local independent bookstore online. It was not just a sales place. It was a place to deliver some of the content, some of the editorial sensibility that you get walking into the stores. I think we’ve succeeded on that level. That connection people can make one-on-one with booksellers, they can make it online, they can make it through Twitter. We’re swimming in waters we already know,” says DeArmon with a confident smile. “This is already how we operate.”—L.C.

Best Rec Center In Which to Never Play Shuffleboard

Stepping inside the Dance Palace Community Center in the rustic, rural, bucolic and pastoral town of Point Reyes Station is like slipping back 40 years but keeping the best of the present with you at the same time. With scheduled events ranging from yoga classes, mediation sessions and “Baby Gym” to world-class concerts and theatrical events, the place is part hang-out and part performing arts center. But the main attraction to the Dance Palace is the people who loiter there. You want great storytelling? Just sidle up to someone at the coffee bar and ask them to explain how things have changed in town over the last few decades, and you’ll get a colorful earful of incredible inside information. 503 B St., Pt. Reyes Station. 415.663.1075.—D. T.

Best Road to Ecotopia

How do you get to Ecotopia? Reduce, reuse, recycle. No, but seriously now, where is this Ecotopia? No road signs will direct the curious motorist in that direction, firstly because cars are outlawed in Ecotopia; and besides, it’s a fictional state created in 1975 by author Ernest Callenbach. Imagining that the Pacific states split with the rest of pollution-crazy America “in 1980,” it was a post-postlapsarian vision of a nation run by downtime-loving hippies who had next-generation solar power and high-speed rail. As far off as that still seems today, come to think of it, there is a special place forever unmarked by a road sign, down in West Marin under the shelter of Point Reyes; and I thought of Ecotopia the first day I laid eyes on it. Maybe that’s because Bolinas figures in the novel and its less-remembered sequel, Ecotopia Emerging. Or, because the very road into Bolinas lends one the impression of entering a Shangri-La as painted by Grant Wood, with its neat, green farms and tidy, white schoolhouse. Tinged with the urbane, minutes as the seagull flies from San Francisco, it is no resort town; running on a slower shaggier clock, its spirit evinced in its community clothes box, community center brimming with vital signs of arts and music, its time travelers dropping in from decades past, selling crafty wares on the sidewalk or just hanging out on a dock by the bay on a Sunday, strumming the guitar. All that’s missing is high-speed rail. Bolinas, off of Highway One. That’s all we can tell you.—J. K.