It's been quite a year for Pat Watson, the technical director over set construction at Dallas Children's Theater who's emerged as one of the city's most versatile performers on the basis of a very short résumé--four roles at Pegasus and two with Theatre Quorum. He displays a strangely serene authority that travels well from futuristic political satires to intentionally silly musicals to tense psychological dramas. Sound-Biting had him reproducing Dubya's myopic squint and smugly ingratiating smile as a gubernatorial candidate who changes positions in mid-televised debate as the poll numbers change based on viewers' mercurial tastes. He played the villain Black Bart in Cowboys!, a musical about gay cowpokes trying to save the ranch, and turned a manipulative seduction into a personal revelation for his character--Bart really does like kissing guys--with one body-melting pratfall. In One Good Beating at the Festival of Independent Theatres, he was the timid kid brother trapped between his cruel father and coercive sister, between a desire for revenge and a fear of his own impotence. It may not be possible for Watson to surprise us with another facet of his range, but we look forward to finding out.

Ironically, one of the ultimate compliments to any actor is not recognizing her--that is, not realizing that you've seen one performer play two different roles, because she's utterly consumed inside each character. Holly Hickman fooled and startled us with two performances at Fort Worth's Stage West. They required shifts in technique and tone--from profane street hood to grieving Irish mother--that Hickman achieved with the delicate mastery that comes not from acting, but from being. In Conor McPherson's deeply sad collection of ghost stories, The Weir, she was a single professional woman from Dublin invited into a pub full of lonely men swapping tales. A tearful Hickman recounted her brush with the supernatural--her drowned daughter making a telephone call asking her mother to please help her--and it was an extraordinary expression of the agony of surviving a loved one's death. Jane Martin's Criminal Hearts cast her as a trash-talking burglar and con artist who conspires with a repressed society matron (an equally captivating Emily Scott Banks) to roll the latter's husband (Gray Palmer). This highly implausible comedy--even by the elastic standards of theatrical farce--ensnared us thanks to Hickman's tomboy sexiness and volatile temper.
Adelina Anthony studied under Cora Cardona at Teatro Dallas and founded Cara Mia Theatre before moving to Los Angeles to dedicate herself to cultivating the lesbian Latina presence in American theater. Lest you think this fiercely intelligent artist double-bound herself artistically with partisan minority perspectives--a charge that's rarely leveled at the countless folks who are happy to exclusively explore the hetero, Anglo life--she brought to Dallas the world premiere of Cherrie Moraga's surprisingly universal The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea. As both director and star, Anthony had the rarefied vision and ability to reveal myriad places where sexuality and ethnicity overlap, tangle and strangle us in our pursuit to make contact with one another. Set in a dystopian world where the races have balkanized themselves, and homosexuals are the lepers common to each tribe, The Hungry Woman rejected finger-pointing and victimization thanks to Anthony's guidance; it was far more concerned with the common illusions that afflict us all than with unilateral blame. She also turned in a bravely unsympathetic lead performance as a woman warrior overcome as much by her own angry pride as the cultural forces that try to make her choose between narrow identities.
Veteran supporters of small, envelope-pushing theater companies get used to all kinds of onstage extremes: full nudity, sweaty sex, rampant profanity, murder, even blasphemous shots aimed at organized religion. But anyone who attended this year's Festival of Independent Theatres and caught Cara Mia's entry, a miniproduction of California playwright Rick Najera's Latinologues, got an earful of vicious racial stereotypes redeemed with a vaudevillian sense of taking control through laughter. Director Marisela Barrera guided her two performers, Marco Rodriguez and Otis Gray, into a series of skits involving a lustful Martin Luther King Jr., fried chicken and "I Have a Dream"; a Japanese-American thanking the U.S. government for being sent to an internment camp during World War II; and a Mexican Moses who tries to save his people while wheeling around a janitor's mop and bucket. Gray and Rodriguez boasted crack timing, nobody was spared, and the evening ended with the feeling of a successful exorcism. Interesting (but unscientific) observation: White ticketbuyers appeared more nervous about laughing than either blacks or Hispanics.

The Dallas powers that be have long felt the sting of one of the biggest criticisms hurled against us--that a city of this size has no efficient method of mass transportation. Last December came the $50 million, eight-years-in-the-making CityPlace Light Rail Stop, the region's first--and very short--taste of what living in a city with a subway is like. It allows patrons to travel from our still-dormant downtown to a Central Expressway location around which is clustered a movie theater, a Target and the corporate headquarters of 7-Eleven. But as with the American Airlines Center, city planners assured us that businesses will flock to CityPlace at an as-yet-undetermined point in the recession.
When Richard Curtin talks about overseeing the activities of "the girls and the boys," don't mistake him for a kindergarten teacher. As entertainment director for Caven Enterprises, Dallas' largest owner of lesbian and gay bars and clubs, it's Curtin's responsibility to coax, pester, nudge and generally troubleshoot for "the girls"--the drag artists--and "the boys"--the male dancers--as well as the sometimes rowdy crowds that flock to their performances.

"Most of my work is buffer work," Curtin says, referring to the performers, the paying patrons and the city authorities. "I have to make sure everyone's complying with the law. You have to remember, Dallas is a small town run like a small Baptist church. It's full of small-minded Baptist people waiting for us to screw up."

Since 1998, Curtin has played "den dad" over a one-block stretch of Cedar Springs--or "den mom" during those nights when he's attired as Edna Jean Robinson, his own oily-haired trailer-trash female persona. Five nights a week, starting at about 9:45 p.m. till unspeakable hours of the a.m., Curtin moves through the dressing rooms of the Village Station, Sue Ellen's, Throckmorton Mining Company and J.R.'s Bar & Grill. He has to make sure his boy dancers' buttocks are completely covered: Since none of Caven's operations are zoned as "S.O.B."s (sexually oriented businesses), they can't offer anything that even approximates nudity. And he sees to it that his female impersonators are zipped up, hairsprayed, lipsticked and properly introduced either for special events or for the nightly shows in The Rose Room, the Village Station's drag theater. Interestingly, there are problems common to both the boys and the girls where audiences are concerned.

"I run into patrons expecting too much for their dollar," Curtin says, referring to the tips that are given during midperformance. "They want the dancers to show their business. Or they get mad when the girls don't stop and talk to them long enough during a show. I have to smooth that out, but I also have to make sure that the patrons don't get too much for their money."

As far as the Rose Room's dressing area is concerned, all kinds of images spring to mind: scowling, vain, catty drag queens waiting to sink their red nails into co-stars who stole a move or got a bigger ovation--basically, Paul Verhoeven's camp classic Showgirls with an all-male cast. Curtin acknowledges that this may be true in other venues but testifies without hesitation to the professionalism of his artists.

"Performers come from all across the country, and they're shocked at how friendly and helpful our girls are. They'll let you borrow their jewelry. The Village Station hosts a lot of national title holders--Donna Day, Crystal Summers, Celeste Martinez. If you dedicate your life to something like this, you have to have discipline."

The hour before an 11 p.m. show at the Rose Room is a small tornado of activity. Kelexis Davenport borrows makeup; Cassie Nova is hunting for the can of Spam she uses in her act; Valerie Lohr invariably needs help getting her shoes buckled. Lohr also often requires assistance for the back zipper on her elaborate gowns, and there's only one tool for the job: A pair of needle-nosed pliers is always nearby. "Find the tool!" is a common call on a weekend night in the dressing room.

Once the music is cued, the chattering tables hush, and Curtin makes his introductions. There's only one rule in the Rose Room, and Curtin says it's broken every night--sometimes several times--no matter how often patrons are reminded. Maybe alcohol and hairspray fumes mixed in an unventilated space contribute to delusions of stardom. But invariably, someone near the front will think they're more important than the act--or think that maybe they are the act--and stand or step onto the tiny stage space. If Curtin were to post this rule, it would speak for the girls paid to perform: "Don't stand in front of my spotlight."

Performances happen nightly Wednesday-Sunday at the Village Station, 3911 Cedar Springs. Call 214-526-7171.

Pierre Bradshaw's life is for the birds. Literally. Bradshaw and his wife, Anne, operate On the Wing Again, a sort of halfway house dedicated to wild bird rehab. And this is no small matter. Bradshaw says he took in some 3,000 birds last year--everything from songbirds and ducks to soaring birds of prey--for treatment, care and release back into the wild. He treats everything from poisoned songbirds to an owl pulled from the grill of a semi. Rehabilitation includes working with vets to determine injuries and treatment. About a quarter of the birds brought to him do not survive their injuries.

Yet Bradshaw insists physical rehabilitation is not the most significant part of his 11-year-old business, one that survives exclusively though donations. "In the long run the educational aspect of our organization is more important than the actual rehab," he says. On the Wing Again's educational programs are geared to spawn awareness of the ornithological residents living throughout the city and include the presentation of seven or eight live wild birds unfit for re-release into the wild for various reasons. Bradshaw says he also wants to educate the public on how to recognize when wild birds need to be brought in for care, and when to leave them alone. One of the most common mistakes people make is capturing a bird that appears to be struggling, only to discover it is a baby trying to learn how to fly.

Not surprisingly, the most common bird injuries in Dallas occur when birds--especially migrating birds--fly into the city's tall buildings. In such events, Bradshaw says he works as quickly as possible to put the injured birds back on their journey. "Sometimes they have to be transported to catch up with their migration," he says.

Perhaps the most unexpected thing to learn about Dallas' bird population is the number of birds of prey that make the skyscrapers their homes. Some, such as screech owls, even thrive in the city's environs. "They tend to live real well right in the city," he explains. "They nest in cavities and trees." In addition to owls, there are sparrow hawks, red tail hawks and great horned owls.

Bradshaw's path to North Texas birdman was unusual. A mechanical engineer by trade who configured equipment to be installed on airplanes (his wife is a librarian), Bradshaw says that he and his wife learned the rehab ropes by working with other wild bird rehabbers and sifting through books and publications. "With my wife being a librarian, we do lots of reading," he says.

"I put the fun in funeral home!" declares Beverly Henley, one of the few funeral directors and embalmers in Texas who also owns her own business. Lest anyone take offense, Forest Lawn's silver-haired impresario insists she encourages all her employees to have a sense of humor. It balances out the rigors of their profession, as well as Henley's second calling as a critic of corporate funeral homes, whom she describes as "nasty and wretched. They're pretty conniving toward the consumer. The biggies do a lot of things that we independents pay for."

By the time she opened Forest Lawn at Turtle Creek in 1994, her reputation as a national gadfly to the industry had begun. CNN traveled to Dallas to profile her and her claims: that the international funeral corporations--two of which split the city's business almost 50-50, she says--charge exorbitant and often hidden fees, take goods they buy wholesale and mark them up ridiculously and aren't honest about some of their practices.

"I was a free-lance embalmer [working for one of the corporations before she started Forest Lawn]," Henley says. "They'd lead relatives to believe that the embalming would take place at the funeral home of their choice, when in fact the body would be carted away to a centralized embalmer at another location." On more than one occasion, the family would ask to follow their loved one to the funeral home. "I'd think, 'Oh, shit,'" she recalls. "We'd drive to the home, let the family watch us take the body inside, then as soon as they weren't looking, turn around and load it back up [to take to the central embalmer]."

Such frustrations were paramount in her decision to open her own establishment. Like many in the business, Henley is licensed as director and embalmer; she does the lion's share of both at Forest Lawn, holding mourners' hands, preparing bodies and navigating through floral arrangements and religious rituals. Inside an antiseptic back room, she makes incisions with two tubes--one to push in the embalming fluid, the other to push out blood and bile into a urinal-like flush receptacle. She also does her own RA work--"restorative arts," that is. For corpses damaged in accidents, she takes liquid and scented wax skin and refashions ears, noses, cheeks and foreheads by hand.

She thinks it perfectly natural that more women have begun to gain her kind of status in the funeral industry. "We're nurturers," she says. "We're detail-oriented. Planning a funeral is like planning a wedding."

Still, no amount of preparation can anticipate all the variables for such an emotional event. "Funerals tend to bring out the peculiar side of human nature," Henley says. When asked to illustrate this remark, she describes a little scene that she absolutely, positively swears she witnessed. To wit:

One of her clients was an old man who died after a protracted illness. He had several grown sons, as well as an adult daughter from whom he'd been estranged for the last years of his life. Apparently, after her father's demise, she became interested in the possibilities of his will, and there was some feeling she might make a last-minute appearance at the funeral. Also, Henley adds, "I think she was a little, you know..." and taps her own temple.

Sure enough, as the priest read over the casket during the service, a car pulled up and out came the daughter in a trench coat and heels. Her brothers tried to ignore her, but she began weeping and wailing at the graveside, "It should've been me! It should've been me!" One of her brothers started calling her a "cunt." She, in turn, paused between sobs to call him an "asshole." The priest and the onlookers kept their eyes trained firmly down.

As her bellowing reached a crescendo, she threw off her trench coat--turns out she was stark naked underneath--and leapt into the grave atop the casket, again wailing, "It should've been me!"

"It was like somebody threw a firebomb into the crowd," Henley recalls. "Everyone scattered. The priest got in his car and left."

Her brothers spent several long minutes angrily trying to talk her out, but she refused. Finally, one of them said, "All right, it should've been you," picked up a shovel and started filling the grave with dirt on top of her. She scrambled out frantically, her hair and body coated with soil.

How did Henley get such a full view of the fracas? "We were hiding behind a tree nearby," she says.

Forest Lawn Funeral Home is located at 3204 Fairmount St. Call 214-953-0363.

Sports talk-show hosts have long debated whether horses know when they win a race. Do they, in other words, experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? It is an interesting question but one we'll likely never have a definitive answer to because the horses won't talk.

One thing about winning racehorses we do know: Shortly after they've run a mile or so with a small person on their back, getting whipped most of the way, they would rather you not try to sneak up behind them and collect their urine. This, Bryan Higgins can confirm. He is a test technician at Grand Prairie's Lone Star Park. His unenviable job is to obtain 8 ounces from winning and placing horses to ensure they are not actually Ben Johnson--who, despite being hopped up on Canadian steroids, never tried to kick his sample-taker.

"There was this one horse last season that pinned me against a wall," says the 33-year-old Higgins. "I can't remember her name. She kicked me three times before I could move. But she missed my ribs, just got soft tissue."

But maybe you've recently been laid off, are desperate for work and don't mind dodging hooves for $10 per hour. Well, then, you will need two main tools to apply for a spot alongside Higgins and the rest of the test tech crew. The first is a whistle of the sort you make with your own two lips. Racehorses are conditioned from birth to urinate when they hear a certain cadence of whistling (birders, think the northern pygmy owl). This response is advantageous to a racehorse because full bladders do not generally produce faster times.

So after Higgins has snuffed his Marlboro Light under his Nike sneaker and given his horse a bucket of water and waited awhile, he will expertly observe "signs" that the animal is ready to urinate. "After 20 minutes," he says, "the male is going to drop, OK? I don't know how explicit you want me to be, but his penis is going to drop. I'll tell the guy walking him, the hot walker, Let's try it.'" Higgins will take the horse to a stall and start his whistle. Your reporter asked him to demonstrate his technique, and--I don't know how explicit you want your reporter to be--he felt the urge to relieve himself, so winsome was Higgins' whistling.

The second tool a test tech needs is a stick. Higgins could hold his 8-ounce sample cup with his bare hands, but horses, especially female horses, aren't known for their micturitional accuracy. Higgins claims he has not been hit in the course of duty, a feat made possible by something known around the test barn as Thunder Stick, which really isn't a stick at all. It is a 3-foot length of white PVC pipe, one end of which features a loop into which the sample cup is placed. Along its shaft, Higgins has written, with a black Sharpie, "Thunder Stick."

"Everybody has a favorite," Higgins says. "One of my buddies who works there, he always prefers this really long stick. He stays way away from the horse. I don't like the really long stick, because a young colt will eye you, and he'll see if you're trying to hide that stick behind your back. And he won't calm down till he's comfortable. You know. So I prefer the smaller stick."

Which is not to suggest that the smaller stick named Thunder Stick can always keep Higgins dry. He has to divide each sample. Half goes to Austin for testing; half remains in the test barn refrigerator set aside for horse urine (not to be confused with the adjacent refrigerator intended solely for personal use, storing brown-bag dinners and the like). In short, spills will happen. "I don't wear anything really, really nice," Higgins says. "I try to wear something that I don't mind if I spill a little urine on it." (A sensible policy that your reporter has adopted.)

No, Higgins' job is not a glamorous one. But maybe you're not dissuaded and you'd still like to apply, even knowing what you now know. Like him, maybe you just enjoy "being around the environment of the track." Well, there is one more thing you should know. For some of us, it is the most unpleasant part of the job: Wagering is not allowed.

Quarter horse racing at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie begins September 20 and continues through December 1. Call 888-4-RACING for more information. Good luck.

Cooking is grueling. Just ask any professional chef. It's tedious work getting recipes right, nudging flavors into balance and grooming entres into optimum presentability--especially when this work has to be done for a couple of hundred diners. But if this is tedious, what do you say about Dallas County Sheriff's Department Captain Ray Daberko's daily grind, which entails overseeing the feeding of some 8,000 jail inmates three times a day, for a total of 24,000 meals?

"It's a great big deal," deadpans Daberko, who says he heads up the nation's only centralized penal cook-chill operation with tray service. This means that raw foodstuffs brought into a county warehouse facility in West Dallas are opened, prepped, cooked, fed into plastic bags and rapidly chilled before they are shipped out to Dallas' separate jail facilities. Once they arrive at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center kitchen, the food is portioned into special trays and then delivered to the appropriate Sterrett tower or shipped to another jail facility. Once at its destination, the food is quickly heated in contraptions similar to convection ovens, united with a tray containing chilled items, and served to inmates in the jail "tanks," which hold anywhere from eight to 24 inmates. "Nobody in corrections does what Dallas does," explains Daberko. "What everybody else does is they have a kitchen in each facility."

The logistical requirements for such an operation are daunting. The 18-foot-high walk-in cooler--more like a drive-in--occupies some 1,800 square feet. The kitchen holds four 200-gallon computer-operated cooking kettles. "We buy more corn than any grocery store in the country," boasts Daberko.

Menus are planned six to eight weeks in advance to avoid shortages of food items, which are often purchased by the pallet or the truckload. Meals are prepared three to five days in advance. To whip up the grub, Daberko orchestrates a team of nine salaried cooks and 55 inmates. The inmates are minimum-security birds jailed for nonviolent offenses such as check kiting. "We'll start seeing lots of open-container guys in here pretty quick," Daberko says, almost with relish, referring to the law that went into effect earlier this month prohibiting open alcohol containers in vehicles. "Tuesdays and Thursdays are terrible, because that's when the courts get geared up. We have days out here when it gets pretty tight. We spend all of our time training."

But keeping trained inmates inside the kitchen is not Daberko's only worry. He also has to keep inmates outside the kitchen reasonably content. To do this requires studious attention to some unusual meal characteristics. For example, the foods in hot meals have to be of similar densities. Otherwise, some will burn while others get barely warm. Color is also a serious consideration.

"The reason we deal with colors and things like that and try to get them to contrast is so that [inmates] can see distinctly that there are different things on the trays," Daberko says. They had a problem with appearances some years ago during the transition from older trays to the newer ones required for Dallas' centralized meal system. The new trays were shallower than the old trays, causing the food to flatten and spread in the compartment. To some, it looked like those with the older trays were getting more food than those with the new trays, even though the food was plopped onto the tray with the same 4-ounce utensil. Inmates protested vigorously, and several filed lawsuits.

Flavors are also a consideration. Recipes focus on complementary and interesting flavors--though not too interesting. "None of the Oriental things went over very well," Daberko says.

More important than all of these is the matter of texture and consistency. Every dish must be prepared so it can be consumed easily with just a plastic spoon. "We don't use anything metal that they can cut us with," Daberko says. And while he occasionally serves chicken thighs or drumsticks, he doesn't serve inmates the usual hearty Texas fare. "A pork chop bone makes a real nice something to stick you with," says Daberko, who has been stabbed on the job several times with handmade devices. "Anything like a beef bone or a pork bone, you can sharpen up. And you don't want to get stabbed too many times around here. Eventually one of them might hit something useful."

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