He wore a dirndl and platinum braids. He threw tantrums and fistfuls of excelsior. He even did a little soft-shoe, and won the hearts of a dozen different audiences when Bad Seed performed at the Herberger early this summer.

He's Neil Cohen, a man who isn't afraid to play Solitaire in a giant, rick-racked party dress before hundreds of people. Lucky thing, too, because Cohen might well be the only actor in town who could have brought Rhoda Penmark to such big, bold life. He's certainly the only actor who could possibly upstage former New Times columnist Paul Braun, whose return to the stage after nearly 30 years also involved wearing a frock or two, not to mention a couple of droopy bad seed — oops! We mean bird seed! — breasts. Did someone say, "A memorable night at the theater?"

The big gay weekend in Phoenix always starts with the Saturday-morning parade, where everybody from local group "Dykes on Bikes" to parents carrying signs proclaiming pride for their gay kids marches through downtown from Third Street and Virginia. Once the festival gates open, the park plays host to a plethora of activities, with multiple stages and outdoor dance floors, karaoke booths, rows and rows of vendors, and an entertainment lineup that boasts some pretty good stuff: This year's fest included performances by comedian Judy Tenuta, pop diva Taylor Dayne, and R&B stars En Vogue, alongside an eclectic collection of Valley artists that included girl punk-pop group The Pübes, drag king troupe Sisterzz Twisted, drag queen Ineda Buffet, and, uh, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.

For two days, nothing's taboo — and people do everything from donning nothing but neon green Speedos to participating in "spanking booths," where burly bear men whip them for the crowd. But it's not just a spectacle; it's a celebration and resource, too, with big-business sponsors and big-hearted nonprofits tempting the crowd.

We'd like to tell you that these society ladies are wrinkled biddies who cast off their walkers, strip down to their unmentionables, and break a couple of hips doing a bawdy striptease. Sorry, sickos. The women of this national charitable organization are more likely to burn their bras than flaunt them. Children of the '60s, they've retained their activist mindset into middle age, though the causes they champion now are more likely to be fundraisers for nonprofits than anti-war rallies. Inspired by the more genteel ladies of the Red Hat Society, the Blue Thongers (and we're not talking flip-flops) have a local group that meets at places like The Library in Tempe. Linda Pollack, director of the Phoenix/Paradise Valley chapter, says "Our mission is to fight frump." Like-minded femmes should e-mail [email protected]
Virginia Hill was an American do-gooder who came from wealth and lost a leg during a hunting accident — an unlikely combination for someone who would go on to become one of World War II's most decorated spies. Tempe-based Pearson relates Hill's fantastical tale in The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy (Lyons Press, 2005). The author's strength is research, and her clean, uncluttered writing allows the story to tell itself. The same attributes are evident in her first book, Belly of the Beast: A POW's Inspiring True Story of Faith, Courage and Survival Aboard the Infamous WWII Japanese Hell Ship Oryoku Maru (Penguin Books, 2001), as well as Pearson's "travel series" — a collection of writings detailing various adventures in the Southwest and beyond.
Diana Gabaldon is the kind of person you really want to hate but can't. She's talented and rich and brain-surgeon smart, but she also posts fudge recipes on her Web site.

Wait, there's more. She has a master's in marine biology from Scripps, once wrote comic books for Walt Disney Productions, and created a better scientific computation mousetrap between teaching classes at ASU's Center for Environmental Studies.

Then she decided, "Aw, what the hell! I think I'll sit down for a few hours and write a New York Times bestseller." (Okay, not really. She toiled as a freelancer for 15 years before tackling long form, but we still think she's a smarty-pants.)

Gabaldon's first book-length project was named Outlander, a moody tale about an 18th-century Scotsman and his time-traveling wife, Claire. That book blossomed into five more — so far. The Outlander Series, as it's known, is the historical fiction/romance version of Harry Potter, and is idol-worshipped in much the same way by the author's loyal legions. Her latest in the series, Outlander, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, was published in 2006 by Bantam Dell. And her latest novel, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade — the second entry in her "Lord John Grey" series — was published in August by Delacorte Press.

The Flagstaff native lives in Scottsdale with her husband, Douglas. We're hoping he has a robust self-image.

BEST AUTHOR ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN

James Nulick

National Book Award-winning author William T. Vollmann called Nulick's 2006 book Distemper a "beautifully written catalog of various kinds of unhappiness." High praise, indeed, and a sublime understatement. The literary debut by the Iowa-born, Valley-based Nulick is a hallucinatory, pitch-black love story — set in Phoenix — that incorporates references as far afield as Hitler, Marilyn Manson, Warhol, Nabokov, Kafka, skateboard culture, beekeeping, the old let's-put-LSD-in-the-municipal-water-supply trick, and tow-truck drivers who've been driven to drink by hellcats on wheels.

"I tell people it's a love story," Nulick says. "It's about people who get obsessed with other people in ways that are unhealthy, plus there's kind of a riff on schizophrenia in there."

Ya think?

Suddenly, it seems, Arizona is home to some of the trendiest children's authors around. Stephenie Meyer, author of the oh-so-addictive vampire romance series that begins with Twilight, lives here. Robin Brande, whose Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature inspired Changing Hands bookstore to have its first-ever book-launch party, hails from Tucson.

Brande and Meyer write books for young adults. There's another notable local writer who sets her sights a little lower, age-wise at least. Barbara Park created the character Junie B. Jones, a little girl who — as in her fictional home and kindergarten/first-grade classrooms — inspires both love and dread among her followers.

Thing is, Junie B. is a first-class brat. She's not rotten to the core, she's just a troublemaker — and she's got bad grammar (well, the grammar of a kindergartener), which is the real sticking point for a lot of parents and teachers, who have raised such a ruckus about her they made the pages of the New York Times, not long ago.

We're sticklers for proper talk (in fact, we've been known to "fix" Junie's errors as we read them to our own 6-year-old), but we're also here to say that we loooooooove Junie B. Jones. The reason is simple. Our kid loves her. She'll pick Junie B. over TV, for crying out loud. How often does that happen in your house?

So keep up the good work, Barbara Park! (A little bird tells us you're just as mischievous as your character, so maybe you get a kick out of all the controversy.) We hope Junie B. makes it to second grade before our kid does, so we can continue to follow her antics 'til we're ready for Meyer and Brande — with some early Judy Blume tossed in for good measure, in between.

It's not every day you see an entire bedroom cruising down the I-10 at 60 miles per hour. True, we've all seen our share of beds and dressers dangling and dropping from pickup trucks on crowded Valley freeways. But we mean an actual entire bedroom here, folks, cruising intact down the freeway and not chunking into pieces on the asphalt.

A growing handful of lucky drivers have seen what is certainly the best advertising ploy of 2007: IKEA's promotion of their new catalog includes a black truck (actually not made of compressed wood) with a glass, greenhouse-like bed that features an entire bedroom.

Our sources tell us the experts at IKEA bolted down "the lighter objects" (i.e., all the objects), so as to keep them from shifting during the bedroom's eye-catching jaunt about the Valley. The truck amounts to a driving glass bubble, magnifying the company's product and reminding all gazers to pick up the new IKEA catalog. For this we give our "well done" to our favorite cardboard furniture factory.

BEST USE OF A VALLEY FREEWAY IN A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE

The Kingdom

Traffic on Loop 202 can be a major bitch sometimes. On any given workday, our commute along the East Valley artery is plagued with rampant gridlockery and loads of dumbass drivers who cause our blood pressure to shoot skyward. We've come dangerously close to road rage a few times but, thankfully, we've never resorted to tossing grenades into the gas-guzzling SUVs that cut us off. We'll leave that up to the magic-makers in Hollywood, who transformed a portion of Loop 202 in Gilbert last summer into an orgy of vehicular violence for the recently released Middle Eastern action thriller The Kingdom.
With its barren desert setting, the two-mile stretch of the Santan Freeway between Higley and Power Roads served as a passable stand-in for a Saudi Arabian expressway where an elite team of FBI agents (including Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper) are attacked by terrorists, resulting in an explosive-drenched, car-crunching action sequence. It packs such a pulse-pounding wallop that we're willing to forgive the fact you can spy a few saguaros in the background.
Now that we've all grieved over the paved paradise where the old Ciné Capri used to stand in Phoenix, and moved on to newer pastures in North Scottsdale, Dan Harkins surprises and delights us once again. In the new Tempe Marketplace at Rio Salado and Loop 202, a second star is born. Nearly identical to the theater complex at the Harkins 101, the Ciné Capri part deux in Tempe offers nothing surprising, but that doesn't mean we're not still enchanted by the grandiosity of the spectacular gold curtains that open before each performance, the 70- by 30-foot screen, and the pomp and circumstance you just don't find much anymore, at the movies. Makes even a summer guilty pleasure like Superbad seem almost classy.

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