Wednesday, Dec 28 2011 05:15 PM

JENNIFER SELF: The top arts/entertainment stories of 2011

BY Jennifer Self Californian lifestyles editor jself@bakersfield.com

Considering how thoroughly subjective one's entertainment likes and dislikes are -- music vs. theater vs. film vs. visual art and high-brow vs. middle brow vs. no brow -- it's tricky to isolate the moments that moved us most as consumers of culture in Bakersfield this year. While my colleagues on the newsier side of the room make sense of the year by tallying the crime figures, rounding up the reams of economic reports and revisiting the various political antics, I am looking at a year's worth of clippings on concerts, festivals and art openings -- which were a big deal to some and a snooze-apalooza to others. A big Saturday night for a lot of people I know is a trip to the Bakersfield Speedway topped off by a longneck at Trout's. For others, it's a glass of wine at Imbibe and a symphony concert. In other words, it's all very personal.

Take my most entertaining experience of 2011: My husband and I took our 10-year-old daughter to the Pixies concert in November. It was a great show (the best of the year, according to my colleague Matt Munoz, who knows these things), but it wasn't the music or even the playful spontaneity of the legendarily stormy band. What made the night special was that it was my daughter's first concert, which counts as a Major Life Moment to her parents, who understand the magical alchemy that happens when you put hundreds of people together in one place to share the singular experience of live music. The near-rapture of the fans, the lights, the smells -- the sheer rock 'n' roll of it all -- create an energy that's hard to explain and impossible to replicate in any other setting. My daughter got a T-shirt ($30!) to remember the evening by, but I don't need one. The memory of the look on her face that night will be with me forever.

So if your Greatest Night Ever, 2011 Edition was just as personal, I get it. But let's face it: The most memorable cultural moments are usually communal. With that in mind, my (highly subjective) list of events and trends that stood out this year:

The one that got away

Every city needs an establishment or two that puts live music first, and we have a few: Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, Trout's and B Ryder's come to mind. But even in that esteemed company, Fishlips, which closed earlier this month, was special. Not because the bar was universally loved (it wasn't); not because every show was a success (for every Dave Alvin there was a band of wrestling midgets); and certainly not for those bathrooms with the unfortunate lighting and vintage plumbing. No, Fishlips will be remembered for being fearless. There was no slavish devotion to any particular genre, they weren't afraid to book interesting but unproven performers, and they felt a duty to feature local musicians, who returned that loyalty in spades. The joint, replete with sassy bar personnel, gave off a kind of messy, by-the-seat-of-our pants vibe that, in the end, probably did them in. But when you walk into a place that has (sadly, make that had ) murals of Ray Charles and Merle Haggard on the walls, you know music lovers, not accountants, are running things. Here's hoping that a new savior of live music comes forward or that the other bars in town will pick up the slack. If not, there's an entire tier of cool-but-not-big-enough-for-the-Fox performers who will no longer come to Bakersfield, not to mention a void for local musicians. And that would be a shame.

The food Oscar goes to ...

We pretend it doesn't bother us, but all the digs about Bakersfield being the cultural armpit of the world get a little old. Which is why it felt like sweet validation in March when the James Beard Foundation -- a culinary organization that honors the finest restaurants in the country -- bestowed an award on the Noriega Hotel, believed to be the oldest restaurant in town. Getting a Beard Award is like winning an Oscar.

Though the judges loved the hearty, tasty food, the award really was more an acknowledgement of the wonderful Basque culture and traditions that help make our city distinctive. And in another great sign that local restaurants are on a roll, raise your glass to Kern River Brewing in Kernville, which won the equivalent of Olympic gold in the craft brewing world for its Citra Double India Pale Ale.

Tough guy with heart

Actor Charles Napier wasn't born in Kern County but you'd never know it from the outpouring of emotion upon his death in October at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital. The Kentucky native considered Bakersfield home, spending the last 25-plus years of his life here, raising a family, forming deep and lasting friendships and becoming a true member of the community, not just the movie star on the hill. His granite jaw and intimidating stare often got him cast as the heavy in films like "Rambo: First Blood II" and "The Silence of the Lambs," but in real life, you couldn't meet a friendlier guy. He was especially proud of his work in the Oscar-winning film "Philadelphia." But in an interview in March, the actor said his greatest achievement was raising his three children.

Bakersfield also will miss Lenore Smith, the graceful dance instructor who taught throngs of fledgling local dancers their first steps, along with many valuable life lessons like the importance of teamwork and being reliable. Also leaving behind an important legacy was Del Connell, a legend in the world of comics who retired to Tehachapi after his long career with Walt Disney and other companies ended.

A Gaelic old time

When the topic of heritage comes up in Bakersfield, the major cultural groups we typically focus on are Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Basque/Italian immigrants and Okies. Add another group to the list: Celtic Americans (or Celtic-American wannabes). The fascination with that part of the world and its people -- those rogues with the brogues -- is nothing new. But the awareness and appreciation for all things Celtic that has been building for years in Bakersfield reached a crescendo in 2011. Take for example the Celtic Music Festival, which, in only its third year, has developed a reputation for attracting internationally known groups (not to mention the many local Celtic acts that play there). When you add the relatively new festival to the longstanding Scottish Games and Robert Burns dinner, organized by the Kern County Scottish Society, you've got a trend, friend. And just to ensure the Emerald Isle wasn't forgotten, the Irish Heritage Club opened earlier this year.

Change is good, right?

Several Kern County arts/cultural organizations welcomed new leaders in 2011, which means change -- and not just to the letterhead and business cards. These folks have the power to influence some of the most beloved and long-standing members of our cultural landscape, most notably the Kern County Museum, which has a new director and leadership structure after the Kern County Superintendent of Schools opted to relinquish control of the county-owned facility. The committee charged with finding a new director ultimately hired Randall Hayes of the New Mexico Museum of Space History but, soon after, The Californian brought to light concerns about how he ran the New Mexico facility. With a true local treasure on the line, we'll have to wait and see how Hayes will lead the county museum.

Also in the change department: The Arts Council of Kern welcomed a new leader, Mike Millar, after the departure of longtime director Jeanette Richardson Parks. Nancy Marvin, so instrumental behind the scenes at the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, retired this year. Hal Friedman left as artistic director of the Spotlight Theatre, turning the reins over to Jarrod Clowes and Alex Neal. And there was a sizable shakeup in management at the city-owned Rabobank complex after a dismal year of concerts there. Speaking of which ...

Out-Foxing its rivals

With the exception of one or two concerts (Carlos Santana and, well ... OK, just Carlos Santana), the Rabobank didn't make much noise this year in the concert biz. But just look at the caliber and diversity of talent presented by the Fox Theater, the arena's smaller downtown neighbor to the northwest: B.B. King, Sheryl Crow, My Chemical Romance, Ice Cube, the Pixies, the Monkees, Styx and Merle Haggard (twice ). Danny Lipco, who handles booking at the Fox, is clearly doing something right. Let's hope the Rabobank is paying attention.

Cultural backwater? Perish the thought

Sometimes it seems our two institutions of higher learning, CSUB and BC, are in a competition to bring ever-more impressive thinkers, writers and intellectuals to Bakersfield. But if means the parade of speakers continues, let them compete. CSUB hosted award-winning author Mona Simpson and memoirist Wes Moore, whose fascinating contrast of his fate with that of another man who shares his name was the subject of a successful community reading project. Meanwhile, BC presented, among other notable speakers, Los Angeles Times columnist and author Steve Lopez and New York jazz poet Jayne Cortez. Much of the credit for landing these outstanding guests goes to Cal State's Kegley Institute, which celebrated 25 years in 2011, and the Norman Levan Center for the Humanities at BC. Both groups and several other campus organizations work to attract thought-provoking and stimulating speakers to our area.

Favorite haunts

What are the chances that Bakersfield would be home to not one but two world-class Halloween haunts? That indeed was the case this year (and perhaps for the last time). Both attractions -- Talladega Frights and The Chamber Haunt -- have been recognized as innovators in the industry of fright, and every year the organizers of both just get more ambitious. Talladega, which started humbly in a northwest Bakersfield yard, has become a traditional stop for families and gore-obsessed teens at its sprawling location on Rosedale Highway. The owners are always coming up with new ways to scare the be-jeezus out of us and traveling all over the country to crib ideas from other attractions. Meanwhile, The Chamber, which has been around longer, appears to be done in Bakersfield. The owner wants to try his luck in Los Angeles (though he teases that a different, more fantasy-oriented production might be headed our way).

Who needs Bakersfield ...

When you have Tehachapi, which seems to be serving notice on its neighbor that there's a new cultural capital of Kern. Theater, music, festivals and museums are thriving in the mountain community, which seems determined to become a haven for the arts. Tehachapi: It's not just apples anymore.

Not to be outdone is Shafter, which held the first of what is intended to be an annual arts festival in February. And they started big: a visual arts show, a special movie screening, an original play, a light show provided by a parade of tractors! You know a town has arrived when as much energy is spent on image and culture as growth and business.

Amen.

Milling around Mill Creek

OK, so the Downtown Business and Property Owners Association didn't reinvent the wheel with the monthly festival called Third Thursday -- it's basically a street fair that moved to a park. But wholesome family entertainment is always a big draw in Bakersfield, and organizers accomplished the goal of moving the hordes a few blocks east from the original location on Chester Avenue to the assiduously primped and promoted Mill Creek Park area. Grass beats asphalt any day, especially if the day in question is a toasty 103 in August. So mission accomplished. Now, if they could just figure out a way to cut down the wait times for those horse-drawn wagons ...

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