By now, Austin has learned how to stage a big, slick awards show jammed with glamour. The Austin Film Society has been doing it for ages with the Texas Film Awards. More recently, the Texas Cultural Trust has reliably matched its movie counterpart for camera-ready star power during the Texas Medal of Arts Awards ceremonies.
The group that promotes the arts, particularly before the state legislature, attracts a wide audience. This week’s ceremony at the Long Center leaned heavily toward Dallas, but fairly represented the entire state. The gala’s chairwomen, Gene Jones and Charlotte Jones Anderson — wife and daughter, respectively, of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — made sure every detail sang.
The sports theme was amplified by the guest emcees, Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman and Fox Sports sportscaster Joe Buck. It continued through the dance awardees, the high-kicking Kilgore Rangerettes, who practically invented precision dance drilling during football half-times in the 1930s. When I asked for a photo, the entire team cocked their heads in the same direction and smiled. That’s discipline!
Global designer Charles Renfro, however, was the first to accept an award. In a timely manner, given the political leaders in attendance, he called for open-mindedness in his home state. “Project Row Houses” artist Rick Lowe up next, felt encouraged that his singular artistry resonated with those who chose the honors. Corporate laurels went to Dr. Pepper Snapple.
Broadway star Betty Buckley saluted the Rangerettes, then T Bone Burnett and the Booker T. Washington School for the Arts were singled out. Musician, songwriter and producer, Burnett, perhaps best known for “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, spoke about the power of the arts over the powerful, again leaning into the political leadership in attendance.
Author Lawrence Wright proposed a “Rabbit Enchilada Theory of Texas Culture” during his acceptance speech about the multi-stage evolution of our relationship to the state’s cultural identity. Playwright Robert Schenkkan, whose “All the Way” opens at Zach Theatre in April, was equally eloquent, if not quite so symbolic. Emilio Nicolas, founder of the Spanish-language network that became Univision, gave a brief, gracious speech.
Austin-born Dallas patron Margaret McDermott, however, stole the whole show. At 103, she whipped out lines such as: “I wasn’t the smartest kid on the block, but I married the smartest kid on the block.” She later confessed that she “had so much fun, she wanted to do it all over again.” First lady Laura Bush handed the Standing Ovation Award to another Dallas patron, Ruth Altshuler, whose softer-edged humor seemed to have two very different audiences. But after McDermott …
After the Steve Miller Band played “Livin’ in the USA,” Miller introduced the Lifetime Achievement honorees, the Gatlin Brothers. The best part of their set was a series of incredible images of the brothers as really little boys. Man, they started out in show biz — via the church — way early.
But wait! We’re not through. They saved three of the biggest names for last — TV star Chandra Wilson, TV news legend Dan Rather and Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, who said he never turned his back on Texas. (I didn’t know he went to college on a classical music scholarship.) He begged the assembled politicos to support arts training in public schools before leading a call-and-response closing number that turned chaotic, but fun. (McDermott played a key role.)
If all that were not enough, the dinner, catered by the Four Seasons Hotel, awaited guests in a tent on the Long Center Terrace. A few grumbled about their rumbling tummies at 9:30 p.m., but once the grub was served, they chatted and exchanged stories into the late hours.