Best Entertainment for the Kids 2008 | Childsplay | People & Places | Phoenix

Okay, so there's no such thing as a permanent carnival in our fair city, or even a really decent arcade where you can drop the kids off for a couple of hours of fun that's also educational. (Is there such a thing, anywhere?) But we do have our very own professional children's theater company, a rarity in a city of any size. Childsplay has been around for 31 years, during which it's presented hundreds of kid-friendly plays and musicals that thrill children while also enlightening them to the joys of live performance. Childsplay's cast of regulars — D. Scott Withers, Debra K. Stevens, Jon Gentry, and the remarkable Katie McFadzen among them — have introduced several generations of youngsters to theater and given their parents a pleasant break from the usual mall-trawling and trips to amusement parks.

We figure the folks at our favorite alternative theater must hold weekly meetings to discuss ways to make us feel more at home when we visit their performance space at Phoenix Theatre, because we always feel like we "belong" when we're there. Maybe it's that they post not a random volunteer to greet us at the door to the theater, but rather one or more of the troupe's principal officers. Or maybe it's artistic director Damon Dering's funny, friendly curtain speeches, during which he always acknowledges the ever-growing group of theater fans who've kept this wonderful company going for a decade now. Or maybe it's the fact that Dering and company mingle with the audience at intermission, rather than hiding out backstage, that makes us feel like we're more than just spectators — we're one of a crowd who're privileged to be there — at Nearly Naked's usually fine productions,

This was a tough call because there are actually a whole bunch of new arts venues that were contenders for this honor. There's the big, weirdly futuristic Tempe Center for the Arts, with its vast, roomy lobbies and colossal, unfathomable parking lot. There's the big, pretty Mesa Arts Center, with its architecturally interesting façades and several sizable playhouses. But it's the cute, quaintly cozy new Peoria Center for the Performing Arts that really stole our heart. Nestled onto a busy street in downtown Peoria, this state-of-the-art playhouse offers a 280-seat main stage on which resident company Theater Works presents its season each year, and a smaller, 100-seat black box theater where new and visiting companies can strut their stuff. Professional lighting and sound equipment make each of the center's shows all the more dazzling, and the cool concession stand is a rarity in any theater venue, large or small. Inside, we love the lobby's visual-arts gallery, and outside we dig the Moderne architecture and the groovy copper roof. And, okay, so the parking lot is itsy-bitsy. We don't mind parking around the corner and walking, because we're so looking forward to this groovy new theater destination as we drive there.

Okay, so this wasn't exactly a close race; it's not as though most — or any! — local theater companies are opening up their rehearsal halls to tiny troupes that need cool, quiet places where they can present their shows. The Herberger is pretty much the only venue that makes room for even more amazing talent than what it's already presented on its stages. Good thing, too; otherwise, we might have had to do without some of the entertainment we've enjoyed so much from iTheatre Collaborative, which every couple of months turns the dark, cozy confines of this backstage area into a real, live theater (complete with no-host bar!). Ditto the Herberger Lunchtime Theater program, at which local businesspeople and theater fans can enjoy a midday one-act and catered sandwich in a space normally reserved for learning lines and trying on wigs. Hey, Herberger: Thanks!

We've rubbed elbows at plenty of playhouses, and we know what to expect from most of the crowded rooms where folks hang out before and after the show. Phoenix Theatre is where we expect to see gaggles of thespians and blue-hairs out on the town, and at Stray Cat Theatre (until recently housed at downtown's Metro Arts) we're likely to find ourselves toe-to-toe with arty types and black box fans smoking clove cigarettes between Acts One and Two. But our personal fave is the Herberger, where we're certain to see a cross-section of the theater-going public in a glorious, glass-and-marble setting that makes us feel like we're on the Great White Way. Everyone from Equity actors to high school students to our hairdresser — we saw her at Pajama Game last season! — is there, proving that it's not just chorus boys and theater enthusiasts who love a good play. We can barely wait for the first act curtain to ring down so we can go see who's coming down the big, shiny staircase in the Herberger lobby, and to cruise the upstairs art exhibit that changes every couple of months. Sure, the play's the thing, but we love the halftime socializing to be had at Phoenix's premier playhouse.

Yes, there's still a drive-in around here. Two, actually. Both locations (in Scottsdale and Glendale) are operated by the same company and both admit children under 11 for free (yes, 16-passenger vans are allowed). If that weren't enough, both drive-ins play double features for only $6.25 per adult.

Movie buffs who don't mind a beat-up bathroom and a nearly-abandoned concession stand can save a lot of dough and enjoy the Arizona weather at either drive-in. The screens work great. So does the audio, which feeds through the car radio.

Simply find a nice parking spot (on the unpaved desert floor) and tune the radio to the appropriate station. Then settle into a comfortable seat (lawn chairs and pickup beds are popular for those whose vehicles aren't accommodating) and enjoy the show.

Admission is only $6.25 per adult for back-to-back double features, which certainly beats $10 per person for a single movie at the conventional theater. Drive-in moviegoers can also save money on snacks by bringing coolers of beer, soda, or snacks in their vehicles.

Heck, you could even set up a grill in the bed of your truck, if you're so inclined. If the thought of someone grilling under the stars while you watch a movie in the Arizona desert disturbs you, then please just stay away.

There is hope. If you're bored with Hollywood's latest reheats of the typical cliché plots, if $10 seems like too much to pay for an uninspiring genre film, then it's time you visit the Harkins Camelview 5.

At Camelview 5, Phoenicians can enjoy a cadre of independent and non-mainstream films hard to find elsewhere in town. There's no stadium seating or anything else fancy about this theater. All the action's on the screen. Camelview 5 plays independent films and the occasional big-house film that doesn't make mass-release. Harkins Theatres have long-supported the art of filmmaking, and the local company continues to do so with this theater, which probably doesn't rake in a ton of dough — although we have seen some long lines. So beware.

We were chatting up the Valley's Midnite Movie Mamacita a couple of years ago, back when she was still throwing occasional slasher slumber parties at the old Paper Heart, and she told us about her dream of dreams: She wanted a place of her own, somewhere she could slather the walls in aesthetic blood and semen. "Ultimately, I want to be a small-business owner," said the Mamacita, a New Zealand native whose real name is Andrea Beesley-Brown. "I really want to have my own place where I can show crazy movies and people can come and drink and eat and just laugh at — and appreciate — these crazy old films."

Wish granted. While she doesn't hold the lease at this mid-'80s-vintage second-run cinema in suburbia — that's the domain of her business partner, Matthew "Matteo" Yenkala — the Mamacita's been handed the license to do something that, for her, is even better than printing money: filling movie screens with her beloved alternative repertory of B flicks, indies, slashers, camps, and left-field classics. She and Yenkala also provide a home base for the Valley's Rocky Horror Picture Show crowd and frequently book guest appearances by cult filmmakers.

All well and good, but this is Chandler. Isn't there a conflict with offering Roger Corman fare and naughty-schoolgirl contests in the proud home of the soccer mom? No, say Beesley-Brown and Yenkala, who insist that their cinema's dual mission of programming family-friendly fare as a second-run dollar theater and alt programming at night and on weekends has worked like a charm. They add that they'd love to have a rep house in downtown Tempe or Phoenix, and that's one possible future if their Chandler experiment continues to bear fruit.

In the meantime, see that familiar-looking décor in the lobby? The Mamacita snagged it from — ding! — the final liquidation sale at the late, great Paper Heart.

Best Place to Learn How to Make a Bike-Tube Wallet

Bike Saviours Co-op

Benjamin Leatherman

This teeny-tiny bike cooperative that doubles as a performance venue for hyperactive punk and high-octane rock is open for business only on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons, but it definitely makes its working hours count. The nonprofit hosts workshops such as "Fix-a-Flat," "Build-a-Bike," and our favorite, "How to Make a Bike Tube Wallet." Bring three bike tubes, dental floss, sewing needles, scissors, and about two hours of your time and Miss Alissa will demonstrate how to stitch together, decorate, and create a functional billfold — with credit card holders and everything. She also leads a slightly more complicated, but equally fun, bike tube handbag class.

Want to get crafty but don't have the motivation to find a project, buy the materials and clear off a corner of the dining room table as a workspace? Then get yourself to Blissful Living Studio, where the shabby-chic folks who brought us the wonderful home furnishings shop Domestic Bliss are now offering affordable one-day classes on everything from sewing to beading to "dressing for success."

The Domestic Bliss-ers always seem to hit the right note. No matter if they are downsizing or expanding, they appear to do so seamlessly and with the same grace and charm that is the signature of their shops. The adjacent space to the main boutique (which used to house the kiddy shop Baby Bliss) has been transformed to a trendy, bright and cozy craft studio hosting classes and serving up inspiration. (Don't worry, Baby Bliss has effortlessly been transitioned into a bright corner of the main boutique.)

You can't help but feel the creative juices start to flow, just walking in the door. Some classes even include a boxed lunch. You can make your own dessert, so to speak — warm, stimulating and cheerful, we can't think of a better place to learn how to make a felted cupcake than Blissful Living Studio.

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