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Best of 2013: Culture 

Writers Picks

click to enlarge JAMIE SOJA
  • Jamie Soja

Best Marin Live Music Comeback

Shut your eyes and think back to 2007, when in these very pages, we ran a piece titled "Mill Valley Goes to Hell." It sounds harsh, we know. But that was the year things really did go, somewhat, to hell. John Goddard's incredible record store, Village Music, closed, replaced by a hair salon and a dog groomer; and the Sweetwater Saloon, another venerable music institution, shuttered its doors for good as well.

And so began the drought. For years, Marin's live-music scene floated directionless, as untethered as the anchor-outs in Richardson Bay. Then, small signs of life appeared. George's was reopening? Really? Indeed, Todd Ghanizadeh breathed new life into the famed San Rafael nightclub in 2010. Next came swirling rumors about the venue Phil Lesh was trying to open in Fairfax, when all of a sudden the famed Grateful Dead bassist jumped over to San Rafael instead, converting the old Seafood Peddler restaurant and Palm Ballroom into Terrapin Crossroads.

Amid all this, the Sweetwater remained Marin County's elusive Rosebud. Promises of a reopening came and went, and a banner hanging atop a storefront on Miller Avenue proclaiming "Sweetwater—Opening Soon!" eventually wore out its effervescent welcome. Someone armed with a green spray-paint can climbed up to the sign and crossed out the word "soon," and replaced it with the question on every Marinite's lips: "When?"

Alas, "when" turned into "never"—that particular spot is now a Realtor's office—but a noise started being made a few blocks away inside the Mill Valley Masonic Building. Scattered shows from Murphy Productions—the promoters who also broke in the Seafood Peddler—gained the floor-level room on Corte Madera Avenue some notice, and then some serious attention . . . and then, some serious capital from investors, including the Dead's Bob Weir. The icing on the cake was that venerated name, and the Sweetwater Music Hall opened to much rejoicing last year. Here's to a new era for live music in Marin County!—G.M.

Best Former Army Post With Waterbeds Meant for Toddlers

There are few things that would ever make most adults want to be a kid again. But the Bay Area Discovery Museum, your pick for Best Museum in Marin County, is one of them. Designed to supercharge the imagination and creativity of kids, and to tantalize their curiosity about the workings of the planet, the museum is like the world's best playground, the world's best science class and the world's best art studio all rolled into one. Several historical buildings at Fort Baker have been transformed into a complex of different spaces, from the 2.5-acre Lookout Cove—an interactive, outdoor "exploration area" with caves, bridges, boats, trees, nests and spider webs—to the ever changing Discovery Hall, where an interactive exploration of the world's greatest fairy tales offers opportunities to climb beanstalks and ride in a pumpkin carriage. There's a theater, two different arts-and-crafts studios, a wave workshop display (where kids can use their hands and all their senses to learn about the way the oceans operate) and a giant playground area filled with foam shapes that can be used to construct airplanes, forts, robots . . . whatever a kid can imagine. 557 McReynolds Road, Sausalito.—D.T.

Best Infinite Loop of Endless Boogie

Like the fabled village of Brigadoon, rising every 100 years from the Scottish fog, the Healdsburg Plaza hosts a near-mystical community of revelers every summer. Known as Tuesdays in the Plaza, the weekly music/culture/sociological experiment draws hundreds of picnickers and wine-toting gourmands for a 14-week run of concerts, staged on the recently refurbished gazebo. The true spectacle, once the music begins at 6pm, is the massive swarm of people who gather before the stage to dance, dance, dance. Some of the best moves are demonstrated by the regulars: the Long-Haired-Pony-Tail-Guy, who when the music gets hot, undoes his hair, tossing his mighty tresses backward and forward through the air; the King of the Elves and his Fairy Queen Consort, a hippie-dippyish twosome who shake it, shake it, as if they just teleported in from a long-past Grateful Dead concert; the Man-with-No-Bones-in-His-Neck, who dances primarily with his head, bobbing and side-snapping his bearded face in time to the music. And then there's the Standing Man, who just . . . stands there . . . in front of the stage . . . watching with a big happy smile on his face. Healdsburg Plaza, Healdsburg.—D.T.

Best Shared Space Between War Vets & Artists

Sebastopol VFW Post #3919 has been meeting in their town's Veterans Memorial Building "since it was built," says Commander Harry Marsh. So the group, still 168 members strong, took it in stride when the facility came under new management late last year. In a groundbreaking "win-win" deal with Sonoma County Regional Parks, which owns the aging facility at the eastern edge of Ives Park, it now bears a new identity as the reconfigured home to the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Amid the new art gallery, ceramics studio, performance space and multipurpose classrooms, Post 3913 continues to hold regular meetings in the Fireside Room on the third Tuesday evening of each month (their Ladies Auxiliary gathers in the same space earlier in the afternoon on those same days). At other times, the room is now home to leaderless watercolor painting sessions, music and dance lessons and a variety of other classes. Says Marsh, a man of few words: "We seem to be doing all right." 282 S. High St., Sebastopol.—B.R.

click to enlarge MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler

Best Popcorn-Popping Projectionist & Practitioner of Prestidigitation

Wrapped each night in shiny ribbons of glistening neon, the gorgeous, 75-year-old Sebastiani Theatre has earned its reputation as one of the North Bay's best movie theaters. Located in downtown Sonoma, the historic art deco movie house is a luminous sight each night, gleaming like a mirage at the edge of the town square—and thanks to the theater's affable manager, Roger Rhoten, that sense of magic is often quite literal.

Because Roger Rhoten is a magician.

"I started doing magic in 1974," says Rhoten, who got hooked when he was given a classic Hocus Pocus Magic Kit at the tender age of 29.

"I was old enough," he allows, "that I could see the cleverness of the minds who thought those tricks up."

The first trick Rhoten mastered was the famous multiplying ball trick. Who among us has not been dazzled at the sight of little spongy balls appearing out of nowhere, duplicating like little red rabbits, sometimes even coughed into existence by a miraculous magician?

"That's a nice piece of magic, the multiplying ball trick," laughs Rhoten, who observes the time-honored tradition of donning a full tuxedo when performing his magic act.

Rhoten can often be seen onstage at the Sebastiani, opening a show with a few feats of legerdemain. And soon he'll be taking his show on the road, teaming up with local magician-sword swallower Tobias Weinberger for a kind of newfangled traveling medicine show.

"We're building the wagon right now," he says. "It's gonna be something, that's for sure."476 First St. E., Sonoma.—D.T.

Best Front-Porch Free-for-All

This may be the last year Napa Porchfest snags your pick for Best Music Festival in Napa, thanks to a little ol' festival headed to the wine country this May called BottleRock. We'll be sad to see it go, if that's the case; the free festival where local musicians play from the porches of historic Napa houses is a rare exhibition of down-hominess in the valley. Last year's festival and walkabout featured Trio Solea, Residual Sugar, Jetpack Malfunctions and many others, and was well-attended by bikers and music nerds alike. May the Porchfest live on as one of the breezier and more egalitarian offerings of vineyard-land, by far!—R.D.

Best Way to See a Real Oscar Statuette

There's something special about the Sharpsteen Museum in Calistoga. No, it doesn't have anything to do with Ben Stiller, but everything to do with Ben Sharpsteen, a former animator for Disney Studios who started with the company in the 1930s. Yes, the Oscar in the front is real. The director of Pinocchio, Dumbo and a host of other films created the museum with his wife, Bernice, to highlight the history of the town in which he had deep family roots. The magic of Disney aside, this museum has great dioramas with little people in historic settings. They're so lifelike, it's not a stretch to imagine an Indian in the Cupboard–type situation playing out in real life. Imagine: The curator heads out for a moment, you're the only one in the silent museum. It's a sunny day, and you're in a wide-brimmed hat. A small voice clamors out, "Hey there, cowboy, how 'bout givin' me a hand with this here broken wagon wheel?" You look down to find a tiny figurine of a man—or what you thought was a figurine—from the 1870 historical diorama pointing a thumb at the miniature wagon behind him. Hey, it could happen. 1311 Washington St., Calistoga.—N.G.

click to enlarge COURTESY DAVID FOX
  • Courtesy David Fox

Best Mosh Pit in a Time Warp

Saturday night, Phoenix Theater. Stamp on my hand, "What's up?" to a friend. Stomping down the ramp, mixing in the dark, weaving through kids in black clothes. Laughing kids, anxious, pacing kids. Kids who look so familiar, except for. . . what? Who's that over there, kids' kids? And there's the drummer from my band. Did he shave his head? Up onstage, the shaggy-haired bassist from Victims Family setting up. Great chance to see them again, since I missed that show at the Druid's Hall. Seems like days since I took over his old job at Revelation. Do they still make those falafel burgers? Listen. Coffee & Donuts is starting up. Yeah! Wearing the same curled cowboy hat, singer David Fox twists his boyish face into a punk-rock roar. A loosey-goosey mosh pit forms, dancers bouncing off each other in spastic motion. It's just like old times. But just how old are those times? I'm kidding you. I'm kidding myself. It's been a score and four years since I saw this band. Held annually since 2009, Nostalgia Fest promises an evening of reveries and reunions of bands whose '80s and '90s heyday has long faded to a hazy shade of winter. So let's do that time warp, again. Just don't turn on the lights, don't turn on the lights. Every December at the Phoenix Theater, 201 E. Washington St., Petaluma.—J.K.

Best Pharcyde-Quoting Cello Virtuoso

The concert had been breathtaking, honestly. Yo-Yo Ma, the face of so many PBS telethons, the man who plays inaugurations and Kennedy Center honors—you think you know Yo-Yo Ma, and then you see him live, and you realize that no amount of NPR oversaturation can diminish the irrefutable talent contained in the guy's fingertips. I am not kidding when I say that a woman in the onstage section wiped away tears with a Kleenex. Ma is also the guy who once laid flat on the floor of a public bathroom with a live wombat, so it's safe to say he's down-to-earth, too. Case in point: after his concert at the Green Music Center, he listened to the Ariadne Trio, the artists-in-residence at SSU. How nerve-racking must it have been—especially for cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir—to perform 10 feet away from Yo-Yo Ma? No need to worry. Afterward, the three women exited the stage, whereupon Ma rose from his table, marched up to the trio and commended them on their performance, joking and chatting with them for another 10 minutes. At one point, while inspecting the bridge on Thorsteinsdottir's cello, the famed cellist looked surprised and yelled, "Oh, shit!"—for all within a 10-foot radius to hear. Must have been some cello! 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park.—G.M.

click to enlarge OZ ROBLEDO
  • Oz Robledo

Best Yo Dawg I Heard You Like Stars So I Put Stars Under the Stars So You Can See Stars While You See Stars

At Disneyland, tucked into a quiet corner of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, sits the Blue Bayou restaurant, designed to replicate the experience of eating outside under the stars on the back porch of a vast Louisiana mansion. The illusion is remarkable: day or night, the place is kept in the faux darkness of a balmy New Orleans night, with stars shimmering overhead and the faint wisp of clouds in the (totally artificial) sky.

Well, here in the North Bay, watching one of Transcendence Theatre Company's "Broadway Under the Stars" extravaganzas is much the same—only in reverse.

For the last two summers, this world-class ensemble of Broadway performers has made its home at Jack London State Park, where, under the direction of Amy Miller, Brad Surosky and Stephan Stubbins, they've transformed the ruins of London's old winery into one of the coolest performance spaces in the North Bay. Technically, the winery ruins—delineated by a large 10-foot-high rock wall running in a massive, windowed square—have no roof anymore. But the illusion created by Transcendence is that the old timber roof is back again, stretching over our heads, that the ranch around us is still bustling, and that Jack London, and all of his dreams, are still alive. It's an illusion the audience, gathered together on bright summer nights, is more than happy to accept. Jack London State Park, Glen Ellen.—D.T.

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