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Michael Barnes

Zach Unplugged, First Edition Literary Gala, Texas Book Festival and more

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Heath Riddles and Marcus Sanchez at Zach Unplugged.

Heath Riddles and Marcus Sanchez at Zach Unplugged.

ARTS: For years, Zach Theatre’s main gala − Red, Hot and Soul − has ranked among the very top parties in town. Well, these days I might nominate Zach Unplugged, its more casual annual affair. After some relaxed but essential chitchat in the Topfer Theatre lobby, we moved into the second “Bobbi Tent,” named for Zach patron and party planner Bobbi Topfer (the first such tent was battered by storms). There, I would have been happy at any table, but ended up with an extraordinary crew led by Mary Herr Tally. It included Salonniere host Carla McDonald, leading businessman Jack McDonald and Tribeza publisher George Elliman. Besides Tally, other gala chairs were the equally fun Maria Groten and Jim Pitts, former State Representative. A great idea: Just one live auction item. We were relieved to see company director Dave Steakley − recently hospitalized − back onstage once the entertainment began. And what a show! When you start and end with singer Kenny Williams − later joined by Roderick Sanford, you can’t go wrong. Among the highlights were Jill Blackwood and Andrew Foote singing “Our Children” from “Ragtime,” the best musical I’ve ever seen in Austin. Must see Zach’s “Evita” after hearing Maddie Trumble sing. And who but J. Robert Moore could do Liza Minnelli justice reviving her rollicking “Ring Them Bells”? The rousing climax, however, belonged to theater’s youth company, who crushed with “No Day Like Today” from “Rent.” No sets. No costumes. Just irrefutable talent.

Jose Penafiel and Gabriela Vivanco at First Edition Literary Gala for the Texas Book Festival.

Jose Penafiel and Gabriela Vivanco at First Edition Literary Gala for the Texas Book Festival.

BOOKS 1: To the outsider, the First Edition Literary Gala might sound a bit dry and dusty. No way. Every season, it is among the most entertaining events in Austin. How can you go wrong with the effortlessly hilarious Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, as the emcee? The man has sold tens of millions of books for all ages, but he’s equally captivating in person. Revered Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood proved even more droll (“I was corrupted by Shakespeare in my youth”), while self-professedly handsome actor Taye Diggs scored maximum laughs with anecdote after anecdote. (I did not linger long enough to hear from Bob Shea in the Reading Rock Stars portion of the evening at the Four Seasons Hotel). Glad to see equal founders’ billing going to First Lady Laura Bush and late philanthropist Mary Margaret Farabee, whose birthday coincided with the gala. The Texas Writer Award went, deservedly, to Pat Mora. Bonus: Met former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, here for the Tribune Festival and escorted through the throngs by power broker Ben Barnes.

12115927_10206843127329831_7099913879368394843_nBOOKS 2: Well, it was a switch to see the book-signing table from the other side. If you’ve been anywhere around my social media personas recently, you know that my first book, “Indelible Austin: Selected Histories,” came out last Wednesday. It was published by Waterloo Press, the imprint of the Austin History Center Association, which partners with the city-run Austin History Center. It’s a collection of several dozen historical columns first published in the American-Statesman, grouped by theme rather than in chronological order. Well, for two days at the Texas Book Festival, I signed copies in Tent No. 4. It was gratifying to meet readers who say they’d followed me for years but never got a chance to shake my hand. I’m very proud of this book, which doesn’t indulge in nostalgia, and yet is a big fat valentine to the city. You can find copies right now at austinhistory.net/indelible-austin and at bookstores and gift shops soon.