Best Of :: People & Places
We discovered this historic gem when we attended a vocal recital in the Virginia G. Piper Auditorium (which is neither the Virginia G. Piper Theater at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, the Virginia G. Piper Repertory Theater at Mesa Arts Center, nor the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU Tempe) at the University of Arizona — but not in Tucson. The 1912-vintage auditorium, originally built for the first Phoenix Union High School, has been preserved and spruced up, along with its two lovely siblings from the old campus, as part of the UA College of Medicine, Phoenix. Part of the facelift (okay, more of a lipo) installed a breathtaking collection of Phoenix Union "stuff" in dignified glass cases downstairs in what is, yes, the restroom corridor — but it's way cool. Fascinating old trophies, photos, athletic equipment, uniforms, yearbooks, and other treasures going all the way back to those early 20th-century school days will make you forget what you actually came downtown for. During docent hours (call to check), you can even page through some of the annuals and pick the brain of a cheerful volunteer.
Want an original piece of art but can't afford the hefty price tag? Enter the Art-o-mat, a restored vintage cigarette machine that poops out handcrafted art pieces as if they were gumball-machine trinkets. The project began in 1997, when North Carolina artist Clark Whittington displayed his black-and-white photos like old-school ciggies. People loved them so much that the display became a permanent fixture and the idea blossomed into a national network of machines (though this is the only one in Arizona). Pop your cash in the slot, pull the old-timey plastic knob and out comes a work of art from the project's huge roster. Most are pretty amusing. Recent sightings at the slick chrome machine include Bearded Bunnies by William Hessian, Victorian vignettes, and Julie Graces' "Peep Show" secret spy mini-telescopes. You're obviously not going to get a Van Gogh-quality oil painting here, but for $5, any piece of art better than a line drawing is a steal.
Those Christian Louboutin kicks looked damn cute when you saw them on sale at Barney's — and even cuter when you wore 'em — but honestly, that's hardly practical footwear for an evening of walking around Old Town. Easy on the eyes, murder on the feet. Since your pocketbook's emptier than Lady Gaga's head, following your latest shoe-gasm, we've got a suggestion that's equally chic and cheap: Hop aboard one of the four Bunny Rides street-legal golf carts puttering from club to club. Operated by entrepreneur Aaron Lipson, these eight-passenger rides provide complimentary jaunts (although tips are appreciated) from 7 p.m. until 3 a.m. every Thursday through Saturday night. Decorated in electric pink livery and pumping out Top 40 tracks via built-in stereos, Bunny Rides are hard to miss, even after dark. Lipson's crew cruises a service area encompassing Old Town (which stretches south from Chaparral to Thomas roads, and east between 68th Street and Hayden Road), which means schlepping slews of drunken divas and dudes to danceterias, as well as back to nearby hotels. "People get loud and crazy, girls show their boobs, you name it," Lipson says. "It's like a party on wheels." Some caveats: They won't take you home, and those appearing to be overintoxicated aren't permitted to ride. "We don't wanna get sued if people fall out," he says. Besides, why risk the chance of scuffing up your $500 babies? Reach Bunny Rides at 602-405-2106.
We've long thought Phoenix's skyline was pretty — if a little odd. Why do there appear to be two downtowns, and why does one lone skyscraper — the building formerly known as the Dial Tower — rise up from the earth between them? Then we learned something about our skyline that got us asking another question. Why are we so short? Here's a telling fact: At 483 feet, Chase Tower is Arizona's tallest building. Okay, maybe that number doesn't mean anything to you, so let's put it in perspective. Arkansas has a building that's 546 feet high. We're talking about Arkansas, the land of Walmart and rampant shoelessness. Actually, such less-urbanized and less-populous states as Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Nebraska all have buildings taller than the biggest and best of Arizona. Chase Tower wouldn't be one of the 20 tallest buildings in Texas, and that state isn't exactly known for passionate urban planning. Actually, of the country's 10 largest cities, only San Jose, California, has a tallest building shorter than Chase Tower, and, let's be honest: No one knows how or why San Jose is one of the country's 10 largest cities.
As a former New Yorker who's lived in the Valley for a decade, Marshall Shore may know a lot more about Phoenix history than most natives. Like the fact that Mr. Lucky's was intended to be Arizona's first casino or that Wayne Newton was a regular performer at Bill Johnson's Big Apple. Shore, who calls himself an information curator, deals hour-long doses of local lore each month at the Phoenix Retro Spectacular. For a fiver, listeners and fellow tale-tellers can sip wine and lounge on vintage furniture at Phoenix Metro Retro while Shore, through stories and images, shares his understanding of Phoenix antiquity and the importance of saving it.
Photo booths are always cool, like black T-shirts and motorcycles. They practically invite rebellion, so we give ourselves permission to act up. We contort our bodies with those of our friends and family as we try to get everyone in the frame. In short, we ham it up. So what could be better than a traveling photo booth? Enter Mr. Fun Booth, where you can take as many digital pictures as you like with a nifty remote control inside the 2-by-2-by-6-foot box. Renting Mr. Fun Booth comes with delivery within 50 miles of Central Phoenix, setup and teardown of the booth, three hours of shooting time, and a webpage for viewing and/or purchasing prints. Call 480-588-2778, and have fun.
So, the venerable Bob Dylan was opening the concert series of the even more venerable State Fair last go-round, and we were on hand to inspect the decay (of both Dylan and the Fair). Lo and behold, the ancient pair were doing just fine, thank you, quirky as all get-out, but in a most enjoyable way. Before stepping into the old Madhouse on McDowell (as Suns announcer Al McCoy used to call it), we stood our ground at the food stand that sells the giant "grilled to perfection" turkey legs, and watched the parade of humanity — much of it tatted seemingly from head to toe. There were babies upon babies (not tatted, yet) in strollers, papoose boards, carriages, and wrapped in their loving parents' arms. Those adults who weren't sucking down a beer were eating something madly sugary, deep-fried, or — eek! — both. Everyone seemed to be having fun, and no one was in a hurry to get anywhere. We stepped over to the bizarre little show where folks oddly allowed themselves to be hypnotized by some fast-talking dude on a mini-stage as spectators looked on in some kind of awe. Finally, it was time to find our way into the Coliseum to see old Bob. Like the State Fair itself, he kicked butt, and took his time doing it. Thankfully in this instance, the times they weren't a-changing.
Mesa's Main Street has established quite the art walk in the past several months. In addition to such older businesses as History By George, Book Gallery, Mystic Paper, and the Mesa Arts Center, a newer crop of merchants has moved in on the street, including the Evermore Nevermore gallery, the Adorn Style Lounge, Twisted Sisters' Designs, and the Underground and Nile music venues. Having more than a dozen restaurants and shops on a single, straight walk has done wonders for downtown Mesa, which hosts an art walk every second Friday of the month. Each art walk has a theme, and previous motifs have included "Sweethearts" (for February) and "IMP Fest" (independent music). There are usually live bands or musicians on every corner, along with information booths and, most importantly, lots of people with whom to mingle.
Scottsdale is often known as the hub of glitz and glamour in the Valley, so it's easy to forget its humble roots as "The West's Most Western Town." Annie of Arizona Food Tours is just the person to remind us of Scottsdale's history, using the backdrop of Old Town Scottsdale and its many historic restaurants (as well as a few new ones) as a culinary history guide. She takes guests on a three-hour walking tour through the winding streets of Old Town, pointing out museums and landmarks while stopping at fun eateries along the way (from the Rusty Spur to the Sugar Bowl). A Scottsdale native, Annie knows a wide variety of interesting informational tidbits, and as for the edible kind, each restaurant welcomes the tour with open arms and a set table of nibbles, ranging from mini-burgers to sopaipillas to wine to fudge sundaes. This is a great tour for locals seeking a fun outdoor culinary adventure or tourists looking for some local culture, reasonably priced at $42 per person.
Foodies claim they go to culinary festivals to see chefs in action or to learn more about wine varietals, but we know the truth — it's an excuse to pig out and get tipsy on free wine. Our favorite on the festival circuit this year was the Devoured Culinary Classic, a new event at the Phoenix Art Museum that replaced the oddly named West of Western Culinary Festival. The event is run by Local First Arizona, a nonprofit organization that promotes local businesses. Devoured. Makes you want to strip naked and cover yourself in sushi, à la Samantha in the first Sex and the City flick, doesn't it? Well, maybe not. But there was certainly sushi to be found at the inaugural Devoured, along with plenty of accessible comfort foods like corn dogs and meatloaf. Chef Payton Curry's pig-butchering demo and a discussion with former Wall Street Journal restaurant critic Raymond Sokolov were highlights of the two-day event's lecture series. Devoured also boasted more desserts than any other foodie festival this year, from FnB's homemade butterscotch pudding to Fossil Creek Creamery's decadent goat's milk fudge.
If Arizona Strong Beer Festival 2010 had had to compete against Arizona Strong Beer Festival 2009 in this category, it surely would have lost. Though the move from Mesa Amphitheatre to a downtown Phoenix park within walking distance of the light rail was a win with some local beer fans, the smaller selection of brewers and a ridiculous vending situation (one truck selling sandwiches and tacos to thousands of tasters) at the 2010 fest didn't impress us. Luckily, however, the Strong Beer fest doesn't have to compete against previous incarnations of itself. It's still, by far, the best beer fest in the state. It's not just the fact that almost everything poured at the event is special — though the requirement that everything be 8 percent alcohol or above almost totally assures that — it's the fact that the strong suds forge lasting bonds among Phoenix's beer snobs. Year after year, you can count on seeing the same pretzel necklace-wearing diehards testing their mettle at this festival, hugging us and everyone else they sorta remember from years past. It's the only beer festival we'd recommend training for — you should drink at least three beers a night for a week leading up to the event if you hope to stumble out without memory loss — and the only annual Arizona beer festival you absolutely cannot miss.
It's been sort of a rough year for area music festivals. For example, Tempe Music Festival was cance — er, "postponed" — until next year, and McDowell Mountain Music Festival downsized from the lush polo field at WestWorld to a parking lot. So, with that backdrop, we can't help being impressed by what the Warped Tour has been able to do so consistently well for 15 years now. Sure, the Phoenix date was only part of a national tour, but we salute the organizers for consistently giving us a product worth braving triple-digit temperatures at Cricket Wireless Pavilion. Also, although it's national, Vans has certainly shown plenty of love to Phoenix bands, giving Anarbor, Eyes Set to Kill, and The Summer Set nice play on dozens of dates. Hell, even former New Times cover boys Hollywood Heartthrob got a break with a handful of dates on the tour. That, plus some skateboarding, is a win to us.