Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
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Bill Engvall: from Dallas comedy clubs to overnight star, give or take a few years
What a doll. A talking doll actually. Its official name is the Bill Engvall Blue Collar Comedy Tour Talking Plush Doll, part of a set that includes comics Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy and Ron White. Engvall in fine plush costs $15.95. Requires three AAA batteries. Chirps a dozen of his best lines. Sample: "The only reason I got married--my gym membership ran out."
A talking doll isn't an Oscar, but it's a nice trophy for a performer who started out 23 years ago DJ-ing and hosting open mike nights at the old Comedy Corner and Café Dallas. An early profile in the Dallas Observer was Engvall's first good ink, and he's never forgotten it. "You guys have been with me from the start," he says by phone from his second home in Park City, Utah (home base is Manhattan Beach, near L.A.).
Born in Galveston during Hurricane Audrey in 1957, Engvall started cracking wise as a precocious kid whose family "moved a lot" when he was young, he says. He got serious enough in college to graduate from Southwestern University in Georgetown, heading for Dallas and a teaching career (or so he told his folks). Instead, he was drawn to the comedy clubs that were just beginning to feature big-name headliners.
Engvall says he watched Garry Shandling, Robin Williams and Jay Leno work the club rooms. He studied their material and how they handled audiences. He soon became a regular onstage at the Comedy Corner, where, he says, he not only slung drinks as a bar back when he wasn't at the mike but also mopped floors and helped drunks stagger to their cars.
After two years of journeyman work as an opener and middle act, Engvall and wife Gail U-Hauled to L.A., "the mecca of comedy," he says. His goal was "to become a big TV star." Back in the '80s, that was the dream of almost every stand-up. But Engvall's timing was off. Jerry Seinfeld, Shandling and Roseanne had yet to score their long-running TV hits. Stand-ups weren't yet being tapped as potential sitcom stars.
Engvall says he remembers prepping for his first major TV audition. Gail was six months preggers when he asked his wife to help him run dialogue. "Years later I was to find out that as we were reading the lines together, she nearly went into labor," he recalls in his online biography. "Not because it was time to have the baby, but because I was so bad at acting that she nearly freaked."
A good acting class helped the comedian land a guest shot on Designing Women. He'd later work for a year on Delta, playing the role of Delta Burke's brother. Then came what he calls his "big break"--doing The Tonight Show with the master himself, Johnny Carson. "I was as scared as I have ever been," he admits. His act went over big. He expected the phone to ring with offers. Instead, crickets. Nothing. For two years.
So back on the road he went, honing the persona he'd started developing 10 years earlier. In 1992, the American Comedy Awards named him Stand-up Comic of the Year. He was booked year-round as a popular club act. He finally got what would turn out to be a bigger break than sharing the couch next to Carson's desk. A job as Jeff Foxworthy's opening act would launch a solid friendship and a still-booming stage partnership with the "You might be a redneck..." star.
Along the way, Engvall came up with his own signature catchphrase, "Here's your sign."
In his best-known routine, he offers "Stupid" signs to people who ask smack-the-forehead questions. Like the time he flew to a corporate gig on a tiny prop-jet: As the plane landed on an airstrip in rural Arkansas, it hit a deer. When Engvall called home that night and told Gail the story, her response was, "Were you on the ground?" Cue the catchphrase: "Here's your sign." The bit became the title routine on Engvall's first CD, which would become the top-selling comedy CD of 1997, selling more than half a million copies. He followed that with CDs titled Dorkfish and Now That's Awesome, selling more than 2 million of those. He made comedy music videos for Country Music Television that were such hits they made it onto the country music charts.
After all that success, Bill Engvall has somehow stayed the same twinkly-eyed guy-next-door he was when he first took the stage at the Comedy Corner. He works clean. He giggles at his own material as he performs it. And since teaming with Foxworthy and the Blue Collar comics, he's become known as the nice one who tells gentle wife-and-kid tales on the blockbuster Blue Collar Comedy tours. He costars on its half-hour spin-off WB series, just renewed for another 13 episodes. The third Blue Collar Comedy movie will be shot this fall.
"Being on TV has really jacked it up," says Engvall of his celebrity quotient. "I'm selling more tickets than I ever did." Blue Collar Comedy is one of this year's top 50 touring shows, "right up there with Sting," he says. (The tour returns to Dallas' Majestic Theatre April 14, 2006.)
Now 48, Engvall's writing a film in which he'll star, and he's on the road three out of every four weeks with the Blue Collar gang or soloing at lucrative corporate appearances.
Gail and two kids who grew up with a dad in showbiz serve as endless sources of new material. Even Engvall's trademarked line comes around to bite him now and then. "My son was playing a tune on the piano not long ago. I asked him what it was, and he said it was from the soundtrack of Harry Potter. I said, "The movie?' And he said, "No, the book. Here's your sign, Dad.'"
As a comic who's known lean times as well as fat success, Engvall says he takes nothing for granted. "The reality of stardom happening to me was pretty slim," he says. "I still get up in the mornings and think it's this dream that just keeps going on. Every goal I've set, I've achieved."
And is that plush doll a good likeness? "Nope," he says. "Looks just like Robert Goulet." --Elaine Liner
There's a lot to consider when naming the best news anchor, but in the end, it always comes down to that indescribable "it" factor that radiates from the tube, and that's exactly what has us tuning in to Fox 4 on a nightly basis to watch Heather Hays ply her craft. Sure, it helps that she's easier on the eyes than John McCaa and his creepy mustache (after all, she was crowned Miss Hawaii USA in 1992), but she is silky smooth while segueing from soft to hard news and has a voice and face you can trust. She's also relaxed enough to joke around with co-anchor Steve Eager, and has proven to be quite a football prognosticator, as she regularly outperforms Mike Doocy and the sports crew when picking weekly winners for each NFL game.
Hunt is the only real biko on the council—determined to see Dallas transform itself from a generic regional car-centric Blah-ville to a unique, truly cool Biko-City that will draw creative, productive, entrepreneurial people from around the world. But don't trust us on that. Let her explain in her own words. On her website, Hunt says: "Policymakers and city staff will only be persuaded to create real complete streets with real bicycle infrastructure in Dallas (and not a failed, faux version) if they 1) learn how other cities have successfully made the transition from car-centric streets to ones that are bike- and ped-friendly, 2) understand how important complete streets are to our city's future economic development (attracting the "creative class" and thus the companies that want to hire them), and 3) hear the public express a real interest in redefining our city to make it more livable."
We haven't decided if we're totally happy with the Wyly as an audience-friendly theater space (those hard green chairs are enemies of spines), but we're certain there's no other local theater company so fine and so deep-benched with talent as Dallas Theater Center's Brierley Resident Acting Company, which calls the Wyly Theatre home base. Just look at the list of company members: Cedric Neal, Liz Mikel, Sally Nystuen Vahle, Matthew Gray, Lee Trull, Abbey Siegworth, Hassan El-Amin, Chamblee Ferguson, Christie Vela and Joel Ferrell. They include veteran classical actors, comedic talents, dynamic singers and dancers, interpreters of the avant garde, double-duty director-actors and some just downright gorgeous leading ladies and men. DTC's artistic director Kevin Moriarty eschews typecasting, which means plenty of diversity (in age, gender and ethnicity) in his shows. What we like best about the resident company concept, however, is that it keeps these fine actors paid for their work year-round. That makes them part of our arts community that much longer.
The backstage area at Oak Cliff's newly restored Kessler Theater has everything a band could want on show night and more. Lots of free parking directly behind the venue? Check. A convenient backstage door for pre- and post-show smoke breaks? Check. Plenty of room for stowing gear? Check. Upstairs lounge for setlist writing, beer drinking and groupie courting? Check. And finally, your own bathroom complete with shower? Ding, ding, ding—we have a winner. Owner Edwin Cabaniss and artistic director Jeff Liles clearly put as much thought into this space as they did into the actual show room—easily the best listening room in town—so it's no surprise to see local bands begging for another show as soon as they get off the stage.
GrapeFest in Grapevine
1310 The Ticket
There was a time not long ago when a decent playlist on the radio could only be found via satellite. With some local radio stations stuck in the '90s and others on a steady rotation of Black Eyed Peas and, umm, more Black Eyed Peas, the best music on the airwaves actually came from a sports talk radio station. But thanks to the fine folks over at KKXT-FM 91.7 and their public supporters (it's easy to become one on their website), you can hear from Wilco, Ariel Pink, The Rolling Stones and Beach House all in the same half-hour. Judging by the wide range of folk, blues, classic rock and indie rock, their "Music To The Core" motto is more of a manifesto. And, though they encourage membership from listeners, there's plenty of room for public radio freeloaders, too.
Patrick Kennedy's cause is a daunting one: winning over truck-loving locals to the car-free lifestyle, and hoping those building this city proceed with an eye on livability. And yet, something about the 31-year-old blogger and design consultant recalls a guy voted "Most Likely To Succeed" back in high school. Well-spoken, opinionated and lively, his blog posts sometimes take on the look of academic white papers. Like plenty of other successful bloggers before him, Kennedy's audience has snowballed as a series of profiles and guest-columnist invitations have put his ideas about the future of Dallas in front of more influential and less sympathetic readers. Melding urban planning theory with minutiae of Dallas history, Kennedy's ideas for promoting walkability and sustainability—at the expense of those who'd build more highways—start to make a lot of sense. Then again, he may just have us distracted with all the big words.
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza has become a serious international repository of documents, films, periodicals and research dealing with the Kennedy assassination, much of which the museum is now making available to the public in a sunny reading room staffed by a full-time academic research librarian. You do have to call ahead for an appointment, but the reading room is designed to be open and welcoming to all interested persons, according to Nicola Longford, executive director of the Sixth Floor Museum. The full collection amounts to more than 35,000 items, all of it indexed with the latest software and accessible through touch-screen monitors at small work stations. But instead of carrels in musty stacks, these work stations are desks next to big open windows looking out on the site of the event. Opened June 29, the reading room is an exciting addition to the life of the city.
In a sweep of 60-foot lipstick-red walls on its glass facade, the new 2,200-seat Winspear Opera House welcomes theatergoers into Dallas' finest new arts facility. In its first season, the Winspear wowed audiences with Broadway tours of the Pulitzer-winning drama August: Osage County, the Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening and then the topper, the world premiere of Jake Heggie's magnificent opera adaptation of Moby-Dick. With acoustics that are just about perfect, the Winspear is a grand, graceful venue for music or the spoken word.