Best Public Library Speaker 2008 | Magda Herzberger, Holocaust survivor and author | People & Places | Phoenix

Before you say that you're done being bummed out by yet another sad reminder of the horrors of Nazi Germany, consider remarkable 82-year-old Romanian-born Magda Herzberger. Now living in Fountain Hills, Mrs. Herzberger survived three death camps, Auschwitz, Bremen, and Bergen-Belsen.

For nearly four decades, she has spoken about her incredible experiences, reading from her poetry and from her books, listening to musical groups perform her haunting compositions (her piece Requiem is dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust victims). She inevitably gets a lot of questions after she speaks, especially from schoolchildren, about what she endured and how she did it. The thing is, this resilient woman somehow is an eternal optimist, and her speaking style is so engaging and upbeat that it's impossible to leave the room afterward feeling less than hopeful about the human spirit, even under the most horrific circumstances. Her recent autobiography, Survivor, and her children's book, Tales of the Magic Forest, are inspirational. Mrs. Herzberger seems to thrive on speaking at public libraries. She is a bright light among us. Next time you see her listed on an events schedule, do drop in.

Benjamin Franklin had it right about 275 years ago when he created the colonies' first lending library, the Library Company of Philadelphia. It's still around today as an independent research facility. Libraries are things of beauty, and we spend more time wandering the aisles, stopping occasionally to add to our endless repository of minutiae, than we probably should.

We've noticed that many area libraries these days are thinking outside the books. In one recent month (the calendar is available online), the Glendale library, for one, hosted a live music quartet, a class on how to speak with children about sex, a showing of the movie Atonement, a woman who touts herself as a psychic medium, and classes titled "Archeology For Everyone" and "Wii For Adults."

Directly to the honor bestowed here, Glendale also is collaborating with nearby Midwestern University to present monthly seminars on all manner of healthcare. A podiatrist spoke recently on "safe hiking" (bet there was something about proper footware and having plenty of water on hand, right?), a psychologist revealed some "healthy" ways to lose weight, a bio-medical sciences professor warned about the dangers of some so-called "natural products" and a pharmacist lectured about heart disease risks and prevention. Naturally, because it's a public library, the price is right: free.

When Michael Crow took over at ASU six years ago, he talked a lot about "community embeddedness." We still don't really know what that means — no one seems to — but we're guessing the university's noontime lecture series is part of it. Points to ASU for doing something right. This series features a nice selection of topics — from money management to urban design to weight loss. We're huge fans of learning for learning's sake, so it's nice to see the university's investing a little time in the downtown Phoenix community. Lectures last an hour (from noon to 1) and you're responsible for providing your own lunch. The only trick is finding parking and — the only pitfall of this lunch-hour treat — the university doesn't validate.

This homegrown crew, founded by spoken-word diva Mon Cherie, is most definitely dedicated to serving up underground poetry and beats by emerging musicians of all talents in a friendly, unpretentious atmosphere. Often times, the poetry lyricists, such as Ed Mabrey from the Phoenix Slam Team, are backed by the flow-inducing sounds of deep house, jazz, or soul. Check out PB's MySpace calendar for various events, including the occasional Spoken Word Revolution at ASU's main campus.

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.

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