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Best Of 2008

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Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment

CULTURE: Future Acts

In 1958, with the new Kalita Humphreys Theater rising on the east bank of Turtle Creek, architect Frank Lloyd Wright made a prediction about his then-ultra-modern edifice: "One day this will mark the spot where Dallas once stood."

Audacious, perhaps, but an interesting observation about the often underappreciated significance of the performing arts in big-city history.

Half a century from now, Wright's poured-concrete marvel may be as dusty and forgotten as Margo Jones' once-revolutionary theater-in-the-round in Fair Park (still there, but seldom used since Jones' death in 1955). In 2009 the Dallas Theater Center company moves out of Kalita, where it has produced shows since 1959, and into the new $60 million Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre at the Dallas Center for Performing Arts downtown.

Dallas theater, it seems, always has reflected a tendency of status-seeking audiences and benefactors to equate great art with how impressive the building is around it, the shinier and newer the better.

By 2058, however, the Wyly, designed by international architecture star Rem Koolhaas, will be the same age as Wright's Kalitais now. And what arebeing touted now as the Wyly's whizbangtechnical gewgaws (computerized lighting!) and "cutting-edge" theatrical design features (hydraulic rows of seats!) could be as old-fashioned as gas footlights and trapdoors were when Wright planned Kalita Humphreys.

One thing's for certain, though: Whatever the year, whatever the venue, people will still gather to hear live actors and probably not wispy holograms speak lines from Medea, Hamlet, Our Town and A Christmas Carol. These are the "classics." Year after year, decade after decade, these plays never seem to go away (no matter how much some critics and theatergoers wish they would).

Live theater has lived on through the millennia with only the occasional blackout. In ancient Rome, the government shut down theaters, calling them centers of politically subversive thought. That ban lasted more than 1,700 years, well into the Christian era. The Renaissance stirred the arts back to life, and it's been the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd ever since.

Art can be a fragile thing. But even in the worst of modern times, American theater has flourished. After 9/11, large regional theaters such as Dallas Theater Center struggled to survive as corporate donations and individual ticket sales shrank. But actors need to act and playwrights didn't stop typing new plays. So in Dallas and around the country, new, small theater companies popped up, performing in community centers, public libraries, art galleries and other low-overhead acting spaces. In Dallas it's possible to see up to five new productions every week of the year, produced by more than 60 active theater companies on stages as large as the Music Hall at Fair Park and as tiny as the basement-level Theatre Too. From splashy Broadway musical road companies to tour de force one-man shows at the Festival of Independent Theatres, the range of talent currently treading local boards is impressive and encouraging.

That bodes well for the future of the arts here, say theater directors. "In 50 years, I'd love to have a theater community in Dallas not unlike Chicago's or Seattle's," says director René Moreno, who has staged shows at Contemporary Theatre, Theatre Three, Uptown Players and Dallas Theater Center. "I'd love for this to be a place where artists can come and put roots down and really grow and do great work. Maybe have several big Equity houses, not in competition with each other, but with different points of views and different goals. I would hope that by the time we get to 50 years from now, we have several organizations as big as Dallas Theater Center." (DTC is the second-largest League of Resident Theatres member company in Texas, behind Houston's Alley Theatre.)

Technological improvements aside—maybe someday someone will invent a microphone pack that doesn't short out on opening night—theater will always be about audiences sharing space with living, breathing actors.

"I hope it never stops being that," says director Cheryl Denson, who's worked in Dallas theater more than 30 years. "The excitement of theater has always been in human beings responding to each other without being manipulated by technology."

Moreno says he'd like to see theater production get simpler, less dependent on technology and special effects. "There's nothing like being in a theater with live actors onstage. It's a need people have in their community," he says. "Technology won't kill theater any more than movies killed theater. In the end what theater is about is storytelling. It goes back to people sitting around a campfire and someone telling a story that could perhaps change someone else's life. That's what it was, is and will always be." Elaine Liner

Best $4 a Gallon Parties
Lakewood Texaco

We've sung the praises of the Lakewood Texaco several times in our Best of Dallas issues over the years, and yeah, it's still a great gas station day in and day out. But every year on some random Sunday it becomes something more when the joint hosts one of its famous block parties, inviting neighbors young and old and fostering a sense of community rarely to be found in a gas station parking lot, or anywhere in Dallas for that matter. It's an anything goes, multi-cultural kind of affair—with live bands, a dunking booth, belly dancers and promotional beer girls all on hand to help the citizens of East Dallas feel a little closer for an afternoon. Here's hoping the new owners—who took over for the beloved Boueri family several months ago—keep the tradition alive (hint, hint).

1701 Skillman St., Dallas, 75206
MAP
214-459-2880
Best Advertisement for the City of Dallas

Admittedly, we were a touch skeptical about the Deep Ellum Film Festival's transition from The Little Indie Fest That Could into The Big-Money Target All-Star Throwdown Jamboree scattered hither and yon. But, just two years in, the thing's a mighty beast—and mighty impressive, as the likes of Lauren Bacall, Charlize Theron, David Lynch and some dude named De Niro have piled into Dallas for a week's worth of screenings and highfalutin wingdings the likes of which most Dallasites never get to see unless their Dallas lives in Highland Park. But Michael Cain's fest makes much of Dallas look shiny and special: The West Village is hoppin', thanks to Magnolia screenings; Mockingbird Station's cram-packed, what with those Angelika screens running hot; NorthPark's packed, in no small part thanks to the red carpet upon which the most famous feet trod day and night; and all of Victory Park's a go-go, courtesy the host hotel (the W, natch). Really, for one week every spring, even we think Dallas is the most awesome city in the history of parking lots.

Best Album Art

Denton artist and musician Nevada Hill made quite the mark on North Texas this year, contributing stellar cover art for releases by Record Hop, Dust Congress and Stumptone, the latter a vinyl-only release featuring two cardboard panels screen-printed with an imposing image of reverberating speakers. And while Hill's work for Record Hop is admittedly on a much smaller scale (thanks, CD format), it's hard to deny the appeal of the cover art, a quirky drawing of what appears to be a mangy lion crapping the band's name. You can spot the Photoshop a mile away on most local record covers these days. With Hill's DIY treasures, however, all you spot is blood, sweat and artistry.

Best Alternative Club
AllGood Café Critics' Pick
AllGood Café

For years, AllGood Café owner Mike Snider has booked well-respected and much-revered Americana and folk artists to the venues of Deep Ellum. These days, at his restaurant, he continues to do just that. It's a homey place, seemingly fit more for Austin than Dallas with its flair for memorabilia and its general hippie-ish attitude. Does that make the place stand out among Deep Ellum's rock clubs? For sure—but not in a bad way. Rather, AllGood is unique because the music played there fits right in with the restaurant's vibe, rather than with what's popular right this minute. You'll see folk, Americana, country and, yes, from time to time, your standard coffeehouse fare. But under Snider's discerning eye, you can rest assured that it'll be good. Oh, and by the way: the food? It'll keep you coming back even if Snider's taste in music isn't up your alley.

2934 Main St., Dallas, 75226
MAP
214-742-5362
Best Art Exhibit
Phil Collins: the world won't listen

Considering the fact that we don't really like The Smiths (blame our college roommates), we weren't really sure about "Phil Collins: the world won't listen," the three-screen video installation presented earlier this year by the Dallas Museum of Art. But damn, if it wasn't the most entertaining thing we've ever seen in a museum, with the 1987 Smiths compilation, The World Won't Listen, repeating on a loop as fans from Colombia, Turkey and Indonesia sang along karaoke-style on each of the screens. We couldn't begin to pick a favorite image, though the chick in the wrestling mask and the unfortunate looking, teary-eyed Asian man certainly burned themselves into our psyche. We liked it all so much, in fact, that we went right out and got a pompadour.

1717 N. Harwood St., Dallas, 75201
MAP
214-922-1200
Best Art Gallery
Barry Whistler Gallery

For 23 years, Barry Whistler has brought seriously talented Texas artists to his Dallas gallery walls. And without fail, his exhibitions get the conversations going. From impressions and interpretations to artistic method, Whistler's gallery openings are abuzz with "I wonder..." and "That's so...wow." And that's what makes a gallery successful—when people actually talk about the art. The list of BWG's artists is impressive: Linnea Glatt, John Pomara, Allison V. Smith, Robert Wilhite (who presented audiences this year with one heavily discussed exhibition, The Bomb, featuring a skeletal, scaled-to-size sculpture of the Fat Man Bomb) and others. Plus, the gallery provides art lovers with a lively blog (barrywhistlergallery.blogspot.com) to catch the behind-the-scenes new and upcoming events in the gallery, which readers then discuss via the comments section. See what we mean about creating art dialogue?

2909 Canton St., Dallas, 75226
MAP
214-939-0242
Best Authentic Dive
The Windmill Lounge

From the tiled bar to the dark, mellow atmosphere to that ridiculous neon windmill on the roof, there's nothing contrived or even remotely close to pompous in this place. It's a neighborhood bar reminiscent of the little Manhattan dives where regulars know each other and call the bartender by name. And no wonder—the owner, Charlie, hails from the Empire State and makes the meanest New York deli sandwiches in the city. Seriously. We recommend the Reuben, but they're all perfection, especially after a long night of Jack and Cokes. Not only is there rarely a crowd of annoyingly drunk and entitled patrons, but the jukebox is one of the city's best, with hundreds of discs including Iggy Pop, Prince, Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and John Lee Hooker. What more could you want for last call?

5320 Maple Ave., Dallas, 75235
MAP
214-443-7818
Best Bar, Period
The Libertine

Amazing drinks including a rotating schedule of featured drafts and bottles from the globe over. Incredible food from the favored steak sandwich to brunch. Monthly five-course beer dinners. Validated parking. Comfy high-backed booths. DJ nights. Friendly and fast servers capable of suggesting a drink to pair with food or food to pair with a drink. Reasonable prices often punctuated with drink specials or half-price food nights. Great location. Diverse crowd. TV choices perfect for a buzzed stare. The only thing that could possibly be better would be if The Libertine was located in a futuristic force field where all food and drink had no caloric effect on thighs or impending beer guts.

2101 Greenville Ave., Dallas, 75206
MAP
214-824-7900
Best Bartender
Jose Mejia

One Sunday afternoon not long ago, we sat at the MBar in Neiman's NorthPark Center location watching with great affection and no small amount of awe the care with which Jose Mejia mixed up his homemade Bloody Mary brew. On the counter sat a small vat of tomato juice; nearby, there was a large glass filled with Worcestershire sauce, into which he added generous dollops of Tabasco sauce, followed by the juice of freshly grated horseradish and several heaps of the white heat. He sniffed each container before blending them together for yet another smell test, then a taste test. "This way," he said, "you don't need salt, just vodka." He grinned, then poured us another refill, into which he dropped a stalk of celery the size of a baby's arm. We muster myriad excuses to belly up to the Mbar—most involving Sunday-afternoon football games on the three TV sets perched in front of the six stools, providing a welcome respite from the hubbub of overpriced commerce nearby—but, truth is, there's no better place to drink or eat or drink in the entirety of NorthPark; and Mejia, who's stood watch over the bar since its inception four years ago, is as generous and considerate a host as any afternoon mall drinker could ask for.

8687 N. Central Expressway, Dallas, 75225
MAP
214-363-8311
Best Beer Joint
Flying Saucer

Sure, it's disappointing that a place with a name so associated with aliens and UFOs isn't decked out as such. In fact, the décor is a little confusing at the Saucer, as the walls and ceilings are covered with glass plates. But the place makes up for it with plenty of couches and a cozy room called the "Pub of Love," along with its unmatched selection of beer. On any given night, you've got a choice between 90 to 100 beers on tap and another 90 to 100 in bottles. Want a beer from the Czech Republic? They got it. Japan? Check.

4821 Bass Pro Dr., Garland, 75043
MAP
972-226-0725
Best Belter
Megan Kelly Bates
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When a musical needs a voice that can hit the back row, go through the back wall, into the parking lot and out to the stratosphere, the director calls for Megan Kelly Bates. The bouncy redhead sings, tap-dances and gets laughs, winning hearts and testing eardrums most recently as a yappy pup with a lot of high notes in Theatre Three's A Dog's Life. You've seen Bates, 28, in The Great American Trailer Park Musical and Urinetown at WaterTower, plus shows at Casa Manana, Contemporary Theatre and other stages all over North Texas. And where'd she come by those pipes? "When I was 5 and about to audition for my first show, The King and I, my mom put me in the living room, and we practiced my song. Then she had me sing in the hallway while she stayed in the living room and yelled, 'I can't hear you!' From there a belter was born!"

2800 Routh St., Dallas, 75201
MAP
214-871-3300
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