Austin Opera Gala Concert, Inherit Austin at MUNY, Austin Shakespeare & Sondheim

Sean Lee and Azalea Laredo at the Austin Opera Gala Concert.
Sean Lee and Azalea Laredo at the Austin Opera Gala Concert.

ARTS 1: It was good to see the orchestra. Usually, the Austin Opera orchestra is hidden in the pit. For the group’s first Concert Gala in a long time, they sat smiling on the stage of the Long Center. And, oh, did they sound sumptuous under the leadership of maestro Richard Buckley, playing two composers too rarely heard in Austin − Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. Before the show, I thought the company’s leadership was tossing Wagner-Strauss lovers some concert crumbs. Then it occurred to me that these selections from “Rienzi,” “Tristan und Isolde,” “Der Rosenkavelier,” “Salome” and “Der Meistersinger” might be previews of things to come. Not these pieces specifically, but a signal that Austin Opera might be heading in a fresh direction. Could Britten and Janacek be far behind? In a bit of opera as opera, towering Seattle dramatic soprano Marcy Stonikas replaced another singer at the last minute and blew us away after only one rehearsal. The concert was followed by a long reception, then a dinner on the stage. A new and cherished tradition?

Audra Tiemann-Iturbe and Luis Iturbe at Inherit Austin's Somewhere in Time at Lions Municipal Golf Course.
Audra Tiemann-Iturbe and Luis Iturbe at Inherit Austin’s Somewhere in Time at Lions Municipal Golf Course.

HISTORY: OK, now I get it. For years, I’ve been what you might call a MUNY skeptic. Why save an old golf course in the middle of a dynamic urban landscape? Yet one reason many are reluctant to take the city of Austin’s side against the University of Texas System, which owns the land for the Lions Municipal Golf Course and periodically considers developing it and the rest of the Brackenridge Tract, is, like me, they’d never seen it. Because we don’t golf. Well Inherit Austin, the young leaders club within Preservation Austin, staged another of its spectacular Somewhere in Time dinners there at dusk. We went on walking tours of historic structures of the stunningly gorgeous course, founded in 1924, including the 1930s caretakers cottage which is now on my list of Austin things to profile. More familiar to our readers is the story municipal course’s integration in 1950, making it the first of its kind in the Jim Crow South. Spent time, too, Consul General of Ireland Adrian Ferrell and parks patron saint Mary Arnold. Enlightening all around. As long as they keep adding activities like this for non-golfers, save MUNY!

ARTS 2: Stephen Sondheim is our Shakespeare. Of his many Broadway musicals, 12 are uncontested masterpieces. Which is why it makes sense for Austin Shakespeare to stage selections such as “Sunday in the Park with George” in concert versions, which skimp on costumes and sets, but not on nimble music or casting, both aspects front and center at the Long Center. I was amazed to see a nearly full house of young and old alike at a weekend matinee performance of this edgy show about painter Georges Seurat. I was not surprised when they cheered and cheered such numbers as “Everybody Loves Louis,” “Finishing the Hat,” “Putting It Together” and, of course, the choral thunderbolt, “Sunday.” Sondheim famously prefers full orchestras, casts, sets and costumes, but I’m beginning to think all his works work just as well in concert.

Tribeza Style Week Dinner + Design, Jewel Ball Luncheon, Imaginarium for the Thinkery

Designer Fern Santini's vision for Tribeza Style Week's Dinner + Style.
Designer Fern Santini’s vision for Tribeza Style Week’s Dinner + Style.

STYLE 1: Pairing designers with chefs, Tribeza has created a new genre of party. To kick off Style Week 2015, the lifestyle magazine switched from its usual menswear fair to a sit-down dinner that twinned some of the city’s best cooks with some its best interior designers. By consensus, Fern Santini outdid all others at the Fair Market venue with her homage to Truman Capote‘s 1966 Black and White Ball. Outsized photographs of the original celebrity guests hung on the walls of a pop-up formal dining room, lit by elaborate candelabras and a blazing chandelier. Other designers created cascading floral runners. Our table was beautiful but comparatively modest in design. We had the benefit, however, of chef Larry McGuire‘s in-person skills representing Jeffrey’s, his flagship eatery. It was like being transported into the tony Clarksville-area restaurant, a civilized meal that climaxed in a perfectly executed peppered tenderloin. My table mate this evening was longtime By George co-owner Katy Culmo. Although we’d met several times before, we poured out our life stories to each other, a rare conversational treat.

Liza Brinkmann and Jeanmarie Rust at the Jewel Ball Luncheon for the Women's Symphony League.
Liza Brinkmann and Jeanmarie Rust at the Jewel Ball Luncheon for the Women’s Symphony League.

STYLE 2:  The midday repast was really all about the apparel. Given by the venerable Women’s Symphony League, the Jewel Ball Luncheon, which helps pay the way for tens of thousands of youth to attend Austin Symphony performances, attracted some 500 women to the JW Marriott Austin. Quite a few of them attired in black-and-white animal prints, they were in no hurry to enter the banquet hall for a full fashion show and condensed meal. Other than servers, I counted only five men, and all of us, including veteran shutterbug Robert Godwin, were working the event in some way, too. The centerpiece, which included a short introduction of the Jewel Ball royalty − still hard to compass after all these years − was an expert runway show directed by the esteemed Sue Webber. It started with loose, organically gorgeous clothing from the Garden Room, followed by kicky, whimsical styles from Rare Trends and little runway dramas acted out by models representing Almar Furs. The second half of the bill included playful, amusing apparel from Adelante Boutique, rock ‘n’ roll inspirations from Red Bird Boutique and stately, bold classics from Julian Gold. Another Webber winner.

Traci Osborn and Janet Ngo at the Imaginarium for the Thinkery.
Traci Osborn and Janet Ngo at the Imaginarium for the Thinkery.

SCHOOL: The evening version of this event took off years ago at an abandoned airplane hangar. This time, the Imaginarium gala landed at the JW Marriott, looking all grown-up and smart. This benefit for the Thinkery had outgrown both the hangar and its own children’s science museum at Mueller. Other than a few super-patrons, such as Lynn and Tom Meredith, the hosts and guests belong to a completely divergent set of Austin nonprofit backers. Which is tremendously gratifying, since Austin’s 6,000 charities need all the help they can attract. Everyone at my table, set close to the resurrected Austin-themed stage set from Jimmy Kimmel Live, kept the commentary going at a fast pace. Helpful for answering questions, immediately to my right were two former Thinkery captains, Mike Nellis and David C. Smith, who cheered incoming CEO Troy Livingston. No estimates so far, but I bet they raised a lot of money this night.

Blazing Up the Paramount Blade

The Paramount from the top of the Norwood Tower.
The Paramount from the top of the Norwood Tower.

CITY: Congress Avenue is transformed. The public gathered before a stage on the street. Smaller parties perched in the Norwood Tower, Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center, Stephen F. Austin Hotel terrace, State Theater, the Townsend bar and elsewhere. All awaited the lighting of the Paramount Theatre‘s vertical blade sign, a replica of the crowned glory that reigned over the avenue from 1930 to 1964, then disappeared.

The Paramount from atop the Contemporary Austin's Jones Center.
The Paramount from atop the Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center.

At Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin‘s penthouse atop the Norwood, the late president’s daughter talked about the Paramount as the last thing they see at night from one of their terraces, and the first thing they see in the morning, meaning a photograph Lady Bird Johnson‘s hearse passing the theater marquee that reads “We’ll miss our leading lady.” In fact, the Johnson family can count another major connection to the rejuvenated façade, as recounted by Paramount captain Jim Ritts: As they planned to replace the blade, the theater leaders could not determine its color definitively until somebody unearthed a video from the early 1960s of an LBJ motorcade moving along the avenue. So green instead of blue.

The Paramount blade from Seventh Street just before the official lighting.
The Paramount blade from Seventh Street just before the official lighting.

The next Paramount party I visited was on the soon-to-be upgraded rooftop of the Jones Center. Here, closer to the scene, one could hear the rumbling of the street party and see the size of the sign − five stories high and able to withstand 90 mile per hour winds, according to an engineering consultant hired by the theater. This reveling proved a bit rowdier here than at the sedate Norwood reception, but both were buoyant about the prospect of the lighting.

The Paramount blade moments after its public lighting.
The Paramount blade moments after its public lighting.

Next, a dozen or so guests − myself included − were led onto the street stage for the lighting ceremony. Most did something crucial, like navigating the theater through times good and bad, leaders such as John Bernardoni, Paul Beutel, Ken Stein, Charles Eckerman and Stephen Scott. Others turned out to be family members of deceased donors, or they worked on the sign somehow.

12043183_10156059488480316_122284010100213542_nWhy was I included? A very small thing really: Seems I got the project rolling three years ago when I quizzed Ritts on the whereabouts of the original Paramount blade. Not long after that, the powers that be decided a replacement would make a fine birthday candle for the theater’s centennial celebration.

Colin Wallis on Party for the Parks and the Austin Parks Foundation

Colin Wallis of the Austin Parks Foundation.
Colin Wallis of the Austin Parks Foundation.

Proud of our parks? Up to a point, you should be.

According to the Trust for Public Land, the city of Austin has carved out roughly 28,000 acres of parks and open spaces. If one counts the surrounding region, we have collectively protected more than 100 square miles for parks and preserves.

Pretty impressive. Until you look at what we do with that astounding acreage.

The city of Austin, for instance, spends about $80 million annually to operate its parks.

“Given our abundance of parkland in Austin, that is probably $50 million to $100 million short of what is needed on an annual basis,” says Colin Wallis, head of the Austin Parks Foundation, which will throw its first Party for the Parks at Brazos Hall Sept. 30. “If you add in capital replacement costs, the deficit is in the billions.”

So it would cost billions to bring our parks up to high standards. What’s the worst of it?

“Our pools are in a state of emergency,” Wallis says. “It would take somewhere north of $50 million dollars to repair and replace our existing pool facilities. The average age of our almost 40 pools in Austin is 52 years old. The typical useful life span of a pool is 25 years.”

The Foundation, which threw its previous fundraiser in 2012, put together Party for the Parks in part to salute what the ACL Music Festival, which starts Oct. 2, has done by pumping millions into the nonprofit’s grants, programs and special projects.

“Since our relationship began in 2007, the festival has given back approximately $15 million dollars to hundreds of parks all over Austin,” Wallis says. “Austin ranks really high in parkland per capita. Unfortunately, we are bringing up the rear when it comes to funding and maintaining our parks. In the latest Trust for Public Lands ParkScore, Austin ranks No. 31 out of the top 75 cities – tied with Jersey City. In a city that prides itself on being No. 1, this is unacceptable.”

AARO Luncheon, Communities in Schools, Character Actor Dave Jarrott

Pat Forgione and Barbara Mink at the AARO Luncheon.
Pat Forgione and Barbara Mink at the AARO Luncheon.

CITY: Do you know AARO? No, not the eatery Arro. Rather, the Austin Area Research Organization, which, for 35 years has taken on some of the region’s most intractable problems, such as mobility, affordability and inequality. It has done so very quietly. That said, the very visible Ashton Cumberbatch called to order several hundred of the area’s best and brightest for an AARO luncheon at the Hilton Austin. They heard about changing demographics from Steve Murdock (7.8 million to live in the Austin area in 2050, much of the increase in the Latino communities); transportation from Joseph Cantalupo (any-and-all approach needed, including tolls); homelessness from Alan Graham (his friends are family-less, not home-less); understanding Latinos from Juan Tornoe (get to know your neighbors); and all sorts of future shock from Tom Meredith (chiming in on the need for education: “We are going to be a big market, but what are we going to market to others?”). Meredith also gave the best line: “Millennials want experiences, not things.” That would include the Waller Creek vision for five parks that he backs. Glad to see that Austin still thinks it can tackle the biggest challenges out there. It’s one of the things that makes the city work.

Derek Ramsey and Brian Luke at Food for Thought benefiting Communities in Schools.
Derek Ramsey and Brian Luke at Food for Thought benefiting Communities in Schools.

SCHOOL: Thanks to Communities in Schools and the Boys and Girls Clubs, graduation rates are climbing. For the past four years, 100 percent of the Boys and Girls Clubs members in the area have graduated to the next class level. We just learned at the Food for Thought sip-and-sample benefit that 99 percent of Communities in Schools clients stay in school. This is astounding. Whatever they are doing, they should keep doing it. And Austinites should keep supporting them, as they did at the Long Center Terrace for a food circuit that included exceptional bites from eateries such as Congress, Moonshine, La V and the Driskill. U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul was in great spirits, as was Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo as they mobilized folks to give, give, give. Everyone talked about how the heat would be unbearable, but a dry breeze erased all cares on the Terrace.

Dave Jarrott
Dave Jarrott

ARTS: Character actor Dave Jarrott takes on a whole new role. Taken from my story in the American-Statesman: “Native Austinite Dave Jarrott’s first crack at the stage came at age 10. The San Antonio Little Theatre presented the musical “Call Me Madam,” and the director needed somebody for a comic walk-on part. They wanted young Jarrott to hide in a suit of armor, suddenly come to life, then do a “take” and run off stage. “I did not want to do it,” Jarrott, 70, says. “I could see through the slit in the armor all these people, and my knees were knocking. After the take, there was uproarious applause and laughter. That was that. I had to be an actor.” For 60 of his 70 years, the deep-voiced, longtime radio personality has performed on Central Texas stages. He returns Wednesday, not only playing Sigmund Freud in “Freud’s Last Session” but also, for the first time, serving as producer at the Trinity Street Theatre.”

Ballet Austin Fête and Fête*ish, Paramount Theatre’s Bumpy Past 40 Years, Marcia Gay Harden in ‘Code Black’

Jennifer Carnes and Abby Hendel at Ballet Austin's Fetish.
Jennifer Carnes and Abby Hendel at Ballet Austin’s Fête*ish.

ARTS: Beauty and pleasure are their own rewards. Yet at Ballet Austin‘s Hamlet-themed Fête and Fête*ish, these paired delights also prompt generosity for Austin’s premier dance company’s education and ticket-sharing programs. Sometimes we forget that people without means — especially young people — would never be able to afford to share the arts without fundraising efforts such as this annual tiered party. The first, which took place roughly between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. at the JW Marriott, included a traditional cocktail reception with silent auction, a fine dinner with lingering conversations and a protracted live auction. Best storyteller at our side of table: Ace real estate agent and ballet backer Cord Shiflet, who tells about moonlighting — for fun — as an Uber driver. He shows up in his Rolls Royce, which dazzles the car-lovers who need a lift. Fête*ish overlaps with Fête, and is targeted to a generally younger crowd, but not exclusively so. It’s always a coup de théâtre when the curtains — or in this case, wall panels — are pulled back and the parties join forces. This year, Ana and Alejandro Ruelas reigned over Fête, Kevin Smothers and Laura Villagran Johnson did the honors for Fête*ish. Don’t know if this is public yet, but Frank Shott, who recently played the title role in Stephen Mills‘ “Hamlet,” told me he is retiring at the end of this season and hopes to study physical therapy at Texas State University. All the best, Frank.

12027575_10156026581895316_3799802711393725024_nHISTORY: The highs and lows of the Paramount Theatre’s past 40 years. Taken from my story in the American-Statesman. “Much of the buzz about the Paramount Theatre’s 100th anniversary — which culminates with public and private parties to toast the lighting of a big vertical sign over Congress Avenue on Sept. 23 — has to do with its early years. Big dreams, big acts, big impact on Austin’s cultural scene. Yet, leaders from the theater’s most recent 40 years — before Jim Ritts’ auspicious and ongoing tenure helming the populist palace — look back on the Paramount’s several near-death experiences along with soaring successes.”

Marcia Gay Harden accepted her induction into he Texas Film Hall of Fame at Austin Studios in 2005. Photo: Jay Janner.
Marcia Gay Harden accepted her induction into he Texas Film Hall of Fame at Austin Studios in 2005. Photo: Jay Janner.

MEDIA: UT Alum Marcia Gay Harden leads new TV show ‘Code Black.’ Taken from Greg Braxton‘s Los Angeles Times story republished in the American-Statesman: “Marcia Gay Harden once described winning an Oscar as a double-edged sword: Although it is a wonderful honor, it does have its pitfalls. “It’s disastrous on a professional level,” the actress, who graduated from the University of Texas, said in 2003, a few years after winning a supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal of artist Lee Krasner, the wife of troubled painter Jackson Pollock, in Ed Harris’ “Pollock.” “Suddenly the parts you’re offered and the money become smaller. There’s no logic to it.”

Authentic Mexico, Tour du Vin, Best Hamburgers in Austin

Eugene Sepulveda and Christann Vasquez at Authentic Mexico benefiting the Hispanic Alliance.
Eugene Sepulveda and Christann Vasquez at Authentic Mexico benefiting the Hispanic Alliance.

FOOD + CHARITY: Besides the divine Mole Coleto con Platano Macho, the talk of the Chiapas-themed Authentic Mexico Gala was the Texas first lady. Honored for her work in education, Cecilia Abbott talked about her special devotion to music, which dovetailed nicely into references to Austin Soundwaves, which provides music education for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. The host for the evening was the Hispanic Alliance which, besides Soundwaves, also manages Emprendedor U, a program that teaches business skills in Spanish. The current first lady campaigned vigorously for her husband, Gov. Greg Abbott, but she is not seen often at Austin nonprofit events, so this rare glimpse on the Long Center stage was instructive. One of the beauties of this evening each year is the chance to dive into long conversations over dinner. My chat-mate this night was entrepreneur — and trained musician — Dustin Wells, who is dreaming up a business incubator for musical artists.

Beto Marin and Georgie Morell at Tour du Vin, benefiting the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.
Beto Marin and Georgie Morell at Tour du Vin, benefiting the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.

FOOD + WINE: This sip-and-sample party was heavy on the wine, light on the bites. Which meant the lines for Tour du Vin, a function of the Food & Wine Foundation of Texas, reversed the usual foot traffic at these events. It also meant that some folks in the roomy expanses of Fair Market simply moved off to the side and talked. That’s actually why I attend these events, so I didn’t mind catching up with folks such as Tribeza publisher George Elliman. With the help of Lauren Smith Ford — back part-time with the stylish publication — Elliman is prepping for Style Week, which kicks off Sept. 24 and includes one event at Fair Market. Tribeza was the first host to make this special events venue on East Fifth street really pop during last year’s Style Week.

Hamburger at Odd Duck. Photo: Laura Skelding.
Hamburger at Odd Duck. Photo: Laura Skelding.

FOOD + CITY: Get a taste of the best hamburgers in Austin. Taken from Matthew Odam‘s mouth-watering story in the American-Statesman. “Summer has just about run its course, so it’s time to let someone else do the grilling. That’s one reason I’m rolling out my list of the Top 15 burgers in Austin — plus a few more. That and, well, who doesn’t love hamburgers? They’re one of my favorite things to eat. You have meat, veggies, carbohydrates and dairy all in one self-contained beauty. What makes a great burger? You need juicy fat, expressive seasoning, crunch, creaminess, tang and balance — and a bun that can stand up to all of it. This list focuses on restaurants that consistently feature a hamburger on the menu, whether that be at lunch or dinner or both.”

The Mystery of the Missing Paramount Theatre Sign

12027575_10156026581895316_3799802711393725024_nAlmost from my first days in Austin — when I unsuccessfully applied for a job slinging popcorn at the Paramount Theatre — I wondered what had happened to the big, vertical sign that once adorned the vaudeville and movie house.
(I did do the popcorn-and-pop thing at the Varsity Theatre, however, for six years during graduate school. Later, when I served as arts reporter for the American-Statesman in the 1990s, Paramount director Paul Beutel presented me with a crisp copy of my original application.)
The ornate sign with a peacock crown once dominated Congress Avenue, lighting up Austin’s main stem at night and rivaling the State Capitol for attention. It was taken down the early 1960s by Interstate Amusements, ostensively for repair, but then it disappeared.
Periodically, I’d hear a story from an old-timer about its whereabouts. Virtually the first question I asked current Paramount director Jim Ritts was: “Where’s the old sign?”
Since then, he has compiled a Top 4 list of rumors:
1. It is hanging on the Paramount Theatre in Abilene.
2. It is hanging on the Paramount Theatre in Seattle (looks a lot like it).
3. It was lying for decades in a field outside of San Antonio.
4. It was in a junkyard in Fort Worth.
Well, nobody found it, or if they did, they didn’t report it, leading us to suspect it was simply scrapped.
Then one day, I was researching in the Austin History Center when a young man asked the staff there about the old Paramount sign. Hmm, I should help this guy out. So while we were both checking out, I told him that I knew preservationists, architects and others, including Ritts, who might be able to help him do his research. As I often do, I shared email contacts.
Ritts sent me a quick, almost whispered reply to the effect that the young man was working for the Paramount because, in fact, they wanted to reproduce the sign for theater’s 100th anniversary. All very hush hush.
So Monday, the new-old sign went up and it was magnificent. On Wednesday, the crown was added. My first thought: Thank goodness the original colors were not garish. That would have been a visual nightmare. Anyway, the Paramount folks will fire it up for the first time on Sept. 23 with public and private parties.
Ritts reports: “My favorite question — and this was asked by at least five different people — during Monday’s installation of the Paramount Blade, ‘Why are you taking the sign down?'”

Caritas of Austin, Concordia University Texas, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Austin Public Schools and Paid to Prosecute

Laura DeGrush and Houmma Garba at Words of Hope for Caritas Austin.
Laura DeGrush and Houmma Garba at Words of Hope for Caritas Austin.

CHARITY: An inspirational speaker should be able to hold the stage. And Caritas of Austin had that in spades with radio personality Bobby Bones. Now based in Nashville, but deeply rooted in Austin, Bones knows how to think on his feet, how to build a compelling story, how to cut the tension with a quip, often at his own expense. During the charity group’s Words of Hope gala at ACL Live, he talked of growing up essentially fatherless in small-town Arkansas. Both parents were addicts. If it weren’t for surrogate fathers in his life who gave him second chances, Bones might have ended up wasting his life. He deftly wove in references to Caritas, which gives second chances to refugees and others through housing, food, education and employment services. This event, which included a tremendously moving video, used to be a luncheon. Now Caritas can claim not one, but two of the best evening galas each year, the other being the revered Harvey Penick Awards.

Elizabeth Christian and Bruce Todd, honorees at the Excellence in Leadership Awards for Concordia Texas.
Elizabeth Christian and Bruce Todd, honorees at the Excellence in Leadership Awards for Concordia Texas.

SCHOOL: I was asked recently: ‘What’s the ideal number of awards during an evening?’ One, I said. Two, if honoring a couple. Caritas does that with its Harvey Penick Awards. So does Concordia University Texas with its Excellence in Leadership honors. The point: You can spend most of the evening focusing on one or two people through tribute videos, short introductions and heartfelt acceptance speeches. The university did it right by saluting former Mayor Bruce Todd and influential public relations leader Elizabeth Christian, who happens to be his wife. Even though the couple — together and apart — have been public figures for decades, we learned much about them during a well-timed evening at the JW Marriott Hotel. Side note: I had former Downtown Austin Alliance captain Charlie Betts to one side and former American-Statesman columnist Jane Greig and husband Brian Greig, a noted attorney, on the other side at our table. You can imagine that I learned a lot during the generous time we were allowed together.

Cadet Philip and Cadet Pannell, part of the UT color guard during the Concordia Texas gala.
Cadet Philip and Cadet Pannell, part of the UT color guard during the Concordia Texas gala.

STYLE: Now that’s a show! Most New York or Paris fashion models stride down the runway with a pronounced kick and a 1,000-yard stare. No so at the Alpha Kappa Alpha “Pink Ice” event at the Renaissance Austin Hotel. The models executed complicated choreography with the ease of professionals, though all are members or alumna of the AKA sorority. All except the plucky male models, of course, whose swagger matched the supreme confidence of the women. All seemed to have a great time. Some 600 guests also enjoyed lunch, honors and shopping breaks in a space new to me downstairs at the Renaissance Austin Hotel. AKA partners with area elementary schools to motive young folks, among other good deeds. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Sonja Gaines, the associate commissioner for mental health issues at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. She’s seeing more and more emphasis at all levels of government in mental wellness, since everyone is close to someone with such problems, whether we talk about it or not.

Welozette Duffin and Kizzy LeJay at Pink Ice for Alpha Kappa Alpha.
Welozette Duffin and Kizzy LeJay at Pink Ice for Alpha Kappa Alpha.

HISTORY: From private schools to public and back to private in Austin. Taken from Julie Chang‘s insightful story in the American-Statesman. “Early Austinites saw calls for a public school system as strong-arming by a Yankee federal government that wanted to tell them where to educate their children and then tax them to pay for it. That resistance, and the tempestuous history of the city’s earliest public schools, will be featured in an upcoming exhibit by the Austin History Center, slated to open Wednesday. The exhibit covers a 100-year period that ended in 1955 when voters approved the formation of the Austin Independent School District, allowing it to become a taxing entity separate from the city.”

Melissa Fontenette-Mitchell & Kimiko Gordon at Pink Ice for Alpha Kappa Alpha.
Melissa Fontenette-Mitchell & Kimiko Gordon at Pink Ice for Alpha Kappa Alpha.

LAW: Insurance company paying prosecutors to prosecute. Taken from Tony Plohetski and Jay Root‘s incredible investigative story in the American-Statesman and Texas Tribune. “If he had it to do over again, Odessa native Roy Kyees would have ignored what the doctor told him. He would have walked out of that office and never filed a work injury claim for his back pain. He would have just paid for it out of his own pocket. Then he never would have tangled with the largest provider of workers’ compensation insurance in Texas. He never would have gotten indicted for insurance fraud. Never would have been arrested and put in leg chains in his hometown jail. Then again, Kyees didn’t know in January 2006 what he knows now: that his insurance company not only hired the investigators who compiled the case against him; it also pays the salaries of the government prosecutors who got him indicted on felony fraud charges.”

South Congress Hotel, Ballet Austin, British Studies at 40, Pluckers at 20, Triple Cone of Silence

southcongressFB.0.0CITY + FOOD: A new star on South Congress Avenue. A cool retreat from the hot streets, the new South Congress Hotel turns inward to embrace dark courtyards, small gardens, a tall lobby, a spacious bar and four eateries, only one open so far. True, Café No Sé stretches out to welcome pedestrians on its corner sidewalk. And one can observe street life from the west-facing rooms. Everything in this Michael Hsu creation is a rigorous yet relaxed mix of Japanese and midcentury modern forms and feels. (I predict it will win national design awards.) Even before the hotel officially opens, the second-floor rooftop pool has become a social magnet. We sampled inventively assembled dishes in a preview of Café No Sé, a bistro that sparked a fresh conversation with each bite and sip. All this, and underground parking which should alleviate some of the four-wheeled crowding on the streets. Am I happy it’s two blocks from our house? You bet.

hamletARTS: Bringing back one of the best. Once again, Ballet Austin proves why it is considered one of the best such companies in the country. They’ve not only kept Stephen Mills‘ “Hamlet” at the center of its repertoire, they keep improving it. Partly, that’s because there are no weak links in the company. So my eye at the Sunday matinee (different cast from the one pictured) kept moving to the newcomers, who showed again and again that every one of them belonged on the big stage. My companion for the afternoon —  writer, editor and dear friend Anne Rodgers — and I agreed that Ophelia’s drowning scene was particularly powerful. (We noshed, by the way, in advance on shrimp remoulade and crab Louie at nearby Zax, which offered a discount if you said you were headed to the Long Center). I’ve seen theatrical versions of “Hamlet” dozens of times, but story never moved me. Challenged me, engaged me, amazed me, yes, but no tears. I actually choked up this time during the balletic finale as Hamlet and Claudius reconcile briefly before, as the comic song goes, “everyone ends as mincemeat.”

The great scholar Roger Louis during UT's British Studies 40th anniversary party.
The great scholar Roger Louis during UT’s British Studies 40th anniversary party. Photo: Trevor Simmons.

SCHOOL: UT’s British Studies at 40. Yes, it was 1975 when the first scholar gave a speech at the University Texas as part of the school’s freshly minted British Studies program. Led by the great man himself, Roger Louis, the program has grown in stature and significance. (Note: My husband, Kip Keller, regularly partners closely with this lauded expert on the British Empire on various publication projects.) Louis spoke during the program’s 40th anniversary party in the rather balmy Littlefield House, which has taken on fresh resonance since the university finally confronted mega-donor George Littlefield‘s legacy of white supremacist statuary on the South Mall. Also taking the stage was new Ransom Center director Stephen Enniss as well as a small marching band that played patriotic British and American tunes. Happy birthday!

PluckersFOOD + SPORTS: My age was triple that of the average guest’s. Pluckers, the Austin-based wings chain, saluted its 20th anniversary at ACL live with giant platters of fried food, the Longhorns game on big screens and then performances from Passion Pit and Bleachers. Here’s how young they were: No lines at bar. Well, you already know the disastrous outcome of the game with Notre Dame and I left before the two musical acts tried to assuage the hurt. I’m fascinated by the origins of this feel-good eatery and perhaps will look into that more closely some day. Meanwhile, enjoy Gary Dingesstory from the Statesman.

11224230_10206383012867534_1904745229526210875_nFOOD + FRIENDS: There’s a reason why it’s called “Triple Cone of Silence.” A series of dinner parties over the past year has included some of our fondest friends. The food, the wine, the company have all been priceless. We share so much in common, and yet I think “show talk” has been one of the most durable threads of conversation. Also, we say things that we wouldn’t say outside of our “triple cone of silence.” I think such things are socially healthy. The tone is never mean or nasty, but it is sometimes outside the scope of polite conversation. This fourth edition was held at the Aldridge Place home of Steven Tomlinson and Eugene Sepulveda. Also under the cone were Robert FairesBarbara ChisholmJamie CantaraAlbert Cantara, Kip and I. All of us have suffered personal losses recently, and all have had terrific news as well, including Barbara’s upcoming engagement at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in a one-woman show about humorist Erma Bombeck.