Photograph by Jaime Crespo
Best Big Three of comics
Most everyone loves comics and animation. With billions of voracious worldwide consumers, and legions of artists working to satisfy their demands, what chance that three of the 20th century's most proficient, celebrated and successful animacomictoonists would have called a mere 20-mile stretch in the North Bay home?
You may never have heard of Calistoga's Ben Sharpsteen, but you've no doubt seen his work. Walt Disney hired Sharpsteen in 1929 for more than twice the salary Disney paid himself at the time. Sharpsteen quickly rose through Disney's organizational ranks. Ben Sharpsteen drew, directed, supervised and produced hundreds of Disney shorts, as well as full-length features like Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio and every midnight stoner's pick, Fantasia.
Charles Schulz's legacy stretches from his namesake airport to "Peanuts" characters' statuary scattered throughout Santa Rosa, to his museum and research center, ice skating rink, library and information center at Sonoma State University—and now to SSU's new music center, as well. "Peanuts" ran in over 2,600 papers for almost half a century all across the globe. It's estimated that Schulz earned well over a billion dollars during his lifetime. And this from a guy who ate a snack-bar tuna sandwich, enjoying watching skaters race round and round, each and every lunch hour, seven days a week, for decades.
Finally we come to the incredible Mr. Ripley. Tim Burton was to direct Jim Carrey starring in a megabudget biopic about the unparalleled life of Santa Rosa native, cartoonist, adventurer, entrepreneur and popular anthropologist Robert Ripley, but it just didn't happen. That Hollywood loses tens of millions on a flick going nowhere speaks volumes about its fascination with this screwball artist who'd travel anywhere to track down mondo-weirdness, then draw comics depicting what he'd discovered. Remember the curried fruit bats, motor-driven roller skates and the headless chicken who laid an egg? Or how about the many carpsicles falling from Germany's sky or the woman dieting on dirt? Believe it or not, Ripley died from a heart attack while Taps played on the 13th episode of his very own TV show.—P.J.P.
Best Free Doughnuts from the 19th Century
Santa Rosa old-timers will no doubt remember Levin's Hardware , a wooden-sidewalk, sliding-ladder kind of place located on the midtown stretch of Fourth Street, packed with tall aisles and every sort of little doodad you could imagine. The more sentimental will also recall how Levin's was displaced in the mid-1970s by the unfortunate arrival of the Santa Rosa Plaza. Few may be aware, however, that Levin's original facade and storefront were preserved, carefully loaded and moved on a flatbed truck to be reconstructed into what's now the front section of Mission Ace Hardware on Highway 12. Levin's towering 10-foot doors remain, along with the original cubby lofts and hardwood floor. And the best part? The folks at Mission Ace have kept up the tradition of offering free coffee and doughnuts on a rickety little table out front on weekend mornings. They're usually gone by noon or so, just like they were at the old Levin's all those years ago. Now, if the family who owns Mission Ace started tanning leather and manufacturing shoes, as did the forefather of Levin's Hardware, Levin's Tannery, that'd really be traveling back in time, Levin's Tannery having been founded in the 1800s. Amazing that a piece of its legacy still remains at Mission Ace. 4310 Sonoma Hwy., Santa Rosa. 707.539.7070. —G.M.
Photograph by Amber Lee
Best Use of Dangerous Instruments
It's common knowledge: use an accordion, go to jail. Use an accordion and a banjo in the commission of a Depeche Mode cover, and you're going away for a long time, sweetheart. So far, Amber Lee and the Anomalies have evaded justice. The outlaw band is still hitting area pubs and cafes, sometimes crossing state lines. Authorities have identified Amber Lee Baker, a redheaded Caucasian female, as the button-woman and self-styled songstress. "Anomalies" was believed to be something of a red herring, that there was just one anomaly, a svelte banjo-plucking brunette swaying as if in a narcotic trance; recently, the gang added a wisecracking fiddle player with a penchant for violins.
Sometime-accomplices include a drummer and bassist, but there's no telling what's in the black instrument case. A composite sketch of their set list reveals a pattern of keening ballads about lonely whalers' wives, monsters and graveyards resembling slowed-down Decemberists songs were they wheezed from an accordion by a camp counselor gone cheerfully goth. Might be depressing, were it not for Amber Lee's bright, tune-carrying voice and singular wholesomeness. An employee at one of the affected venues claims that they drove her out of her mind; others report that the perps easily charmed them and then stole their hearts. When they break out an amusingly dirgey rendition of "Waiting for the Night to Fall" from Depeche Mode's Violater , few can resist handing over cash tips. Citizens, be vigilant.
Amber Lee and the Anomalies' CD release party is May 10 at the Toad in the Hole Pub, 116 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 707.544.8623.—J.K.
Best Architectural Oddity
Those who drive Highway 101 on a regular basis tend to ignore the weird spinning house that overlooks the freeway just north of the Ignacio exit in Novato. Actually, there are not one but two round houses, plus another that looks like a melted skateboard ramp. They are the work of Samuel Albert Harkleroad, who lived in these handmade houses from the late '60s until 1993, when he died at the age of 83. A self-taught inventor from Fresno who built many one-of-a-kind houses across California, Harkleroad designed the largest of the round buildings so that it could spin slowly, keeping the sun shining in the living room every day as long as possible. The other round house, the one with the weird twirling thingamabobs on the roof, was his workshop, and those spinning things are repurposed barrels, designed to be the windmill on an intended self-powered building that, in the end, never generated more energy than could illuminate a single light bulb, and then not very brightly. The third building on the hill, the one with the oddly sloping roof that touched the ground on both ends, was Harkleroad's home at the time he died, and from its windows he could see his other creations, and the highway that streamed past the place he called home for the last 30 years of his life. So think of the ingenious inventor Harkleroad the next time you drive past his home, and be glad you live in a place where crazy geniuses come to fulfill their dreams.—D.T.
Photograph by Suzanne Daly
Best Place to find girls in gloves
A disembodied male voice floats up through the crowd of 500 colorfully dressed dancers. "Guys, introduce yourselves to your partners," he commands, before launching into a dance lesson of rock steps and one-twos. All ears listen intently as Stephen Nordquist, the short, balding and impeccably dressed instructor gives directions at his eponymous dance school, teaching the night club two-step, foxtrot, swing, cha-cha and more. For 22 years, middle and high school students have converged on the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Hall for Nordquist's , a series of dance classes designed to teach "social interaction skills and manners, such as seating your partner or helping her off with her coat, and formal dress," says Denise Cimino, Nordquist's daughter and assistant. The dress code is strictly enforced, the guys sporting suits and ties, hard-soled dress shoes and black socks. Girls are dazzling in knee-length, one-piece dresses (no backless or strapless, mind you), nylons, short heels and the requisite short white gloves.
Gloves? Well, they do serve a very helpful purpose, soaking up the perspiration from the multiple sweaty palms of the night. Visible tattoos, facial piercings or "extreme hair treatments" are strictly taboo at Nordquist's, and any dress-code infraction, including white socks on the guys, results in sitting out the class. Girls must accept when asked to dance, despite the sometimes startling height differences.
Why such a formal code of dress and conduct? Cimino says, "Because there aren't many rules in school anymore. We've had these rules since the beginning, in 1975. It helps with the kids' behavior. It's different, and they feel special." Parents feel it's well worth it when they can rumba with their offspring without stepping on toes.
Nordquist's, 194 Brush Creek Road, Santa Rosa. Tuesday nights at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Hall, October–March. 24 dance classes, $250.00. 707.538.7618.—S.D.
Best HGTV-Style Makeover of an Airplane Hangar
The stage and sound designers for the Wells Fargo Center had every reason to be proud of themselves when Dolly Parton came to play the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Valentine's Day last year. The fairgrounds' Grace Pavilion isn't necessarily anyone's idea of a romantic location, unless steel girders and visions of bomber planes really get your juices flowing. It's also an especially challenging room for concerts, with sound quality ranging from the unbearable (Jerry Lee Lewis, 1987; Richard Marx, 1989; Bob Dylan, 1992) to the surprisingly fantastic (Bob Dylan, 2006; New Orleans Social Club, 2006; Common, 2007). Dolly Parton not only sounded great, but after four whole days of work, the hall was resplendently gussied up from head to toe in pink hues, with billowing fabric hung from the ceiling and pink mood lighting dancing along the walls. Pink hearts were projected around the room, and the stage was decked in red curtains with light-projected titles welcoming the country superstar. Even the 55-gallon-drum trash cans and steel barricades were wrapped in pink plastic. It was like stepping into a secret love room at Willy Wonka's chocolate factory—and in fact, clusters of chocolate pink and red Kisses, along with special Dolly Parton valentines, were placed at each seat. Dolly Parton, herself in a pink dress, mentioned from the stage that she'd never performed on Valentine's Day before. She's not likely to forget it, thanks to the Wells Fargo Center's total and unbelievable transformation of the warehouse-like eyesore. Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. 707.545.4200. www.sonomacountyfair.com. —G.M.
Best going-Out-of-Business sale
Petaluma's Monarch Antique Liquidators , in the old bank building at a busy downtown intersection, has had a "Going Out of Business" banner hanging mournfully outside for at least a year, and here's the funny part: that sign ain't lying. The beautiful old building houses dozens of antique dealers, at least one of which is getting ready to quit at pretty much any time. While picking through the piles of oddball items from days past, you can make a game out of identifying which dealer is the one going out of business this month. But be warned: there are plenty of dealers on hand, selling treasures of all type and vintage, and by the time you find one who's leaving, you will likely have found something you can't leave without. Monarch Antique Liquidators, 199 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 707.769.3092.—D.T.
Gus Conde and KWMR: Radio's sweet and savory audio pie
It's just what you'd expect from the land of cosmic hot tubs, proud liberality and stratospherically priced bungalows. Indeed, KWMR 90.5-FM community radio is everything you'd expect—and then some. As Marin County's one and only broadcast station, it serves up hot, fat slices of both the sweet and the savory: fruity, nutty, meaty and cool creamy slices of radio pie. Musically, KWMR casts an eccentric/eclectic net over programming, ranging from the deep tracks of Bach and Bartók to space jazz, bluegrass, Tibetan Monk chants, old-timey rock 'n' roll and bowhead whale whistles, those subpop genres you'd expect every sophisticated Marin west-ender to bury between his or her well-fed ears.
KWMR has a paid staff of just four, an 18-watt low-power signal, lots of accomplished dedicated volunteers and a mission to western Marin County that extends to its role as the area's sole broadcast emergency info provider.
Among the regular favorites is "Barrio Vibes," broadcast at 8:10 each Friday morning and hosted by Point Reyes National Seashore ranger and part Mayan Indian, Augusto "Gus" Conde, your pick for Best Media Personality in Marin. "Barrio Vibes" is a bilingual talkfest-cum-music-show combining Spanish tunes of the Americas as well as English and other language songs from Conde's personal collection. In addition to the music, Conde and his guests discuss issues facing the large and growing Spanish-speaking populace of western Marin.
Beyond the tunes and disasters, KWMR comes in with "West Marin Green Cuisine," lit blasts, environmental updates and intrigues, historical sketches, Commonweal school conversations, nature explorations, kitsch, a show called "The Hippie from Olema" as well as programming for Sufis, deep-sea ocean-life divers, fine-art junkies and film nuts, while featuring audio scenes from interesting places like the Cockroach Hall of Fame, as well as interviews with the obscure, the notable and such famed guests as Noam Chomsky. KWMR calls itself "Homegrown Radio for West Marin," which is to say that it's not Manhattan, Montana or Mississippi.—P.J.P.
Best Jumbo-Sized Expression of Patriotism
Along Highway 101 in San Rafael, there is a tire store that has for over 30 years displayed an enormous American flag like something from a Michael Bay movie, so big that it always seems to be waving in slow-motion, because it takes such a long time for the breeze to get from one end of Old Glory to the other. The store is Toscalito's Marin Tire and Brake , owned by Ken Toscanini and Vince Ippolito (Tosca-Lito, get it?), and has been waving the gargantuan flag for more than 25 years, long enough for it to have become a beloved Marin County landmark. Not only is the flag a beautiful expression of faith in the ideals of America, it's a great way to sell tires—because without that flag, no one would even know the place was there. Toscalito's Marin Tire and Brake, 670 Irwin St., San Rafael. 415.456.2324. —D.T.
Best Bumrush of the Year
Throughout Lila Downs ' incredible performance at Yountville's Lincoln Theater last year, the loudest and most enthusiastic shouts and whistles came not from the front rows but from the back of the hall—i.e., the cheap seats, inhabited largely by Napa's grape workers. While the high-ticket front section smiled blankly at Downs' Spanish-language announcements to the crowd, behind them repeatedly erupted the arribas and bravos of an adoring lower-income fan base, and anyone desiring a firsthand observation of the uncomfortable class chasm in wine country couldn't do much better than sitting in the middle of it all. The Lincoln Theater, an elegant hall and host to the upper crust during Napa's annual Festival Del Sole, is not known as a hotbed of cultural uprising. Alas, near the end of the show, the proverbial dam broke and the aisles flooded with hordes of cheap-seat dwellers making their way down to the front of the stage, where Downs accepted roses, kissed admirers and danced with small children. Before too long, the front-row patrons got up and joined in. Then the whole hall came down to the stage, forming a warm cluster from all walks of life, and for a dazzling moment in time, all was right and hopeful in the world. Lincoln Theater, 100 California Drive, Yountville. 707.944.1300. —G.M.
Cameo Cinema: Every good Idea Movie Theaters Have Ever Had
When longtime Cameo Cinema operator Charlotte Wagner announced she'd be stepping down last year, the fate of her beloved St. Helena movie house seemed uncertain. The good news is that new owners Shawn LaRue and Cathy Buck have stepped in, and this jewel of a theater hasn't changed a bit, once again making it your pick for Best Movie Theater in Napa County. With candelabras on either side of a large curtained screen and just 140 cushioned wooden seats (the back row is given over to wider love seats for two), the Cameo Cinema's atmosphere is at once classic and intimate.
It's small enough to overhear on a recent visit, for example, that someone named Alexei has a hypochondriac girlfriend, or that another's boyfriend is "like Governor Spitzer." In the lobby, two girls dressed in black glued themselves to the concession stand, serenading the emo-styled clerk with their rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey ("Do you want something?" they asked politely, "'Cause we're, like, not really in line"), while a nearby woman praised the movie house for "having really, really good movies!" (That night's fare? Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona's 2007 art-house scare-fest El Orfanto).
Built in 1915, the Cameo features an art nouveau façade with a vertical sign and V-shaped marquee; the brass balustrade in the lobby resembles those found in the Paris Metro. But in addition to its décor—gotta love the "Guys" and "Dolls" on the bathroom doors—the Cameo's bookings are a culmination of every good idea that movie theaters have ever had.
Along with the first-run features, Saturday mornings are given over to family films like Dr. Doolittle and The Jungle Book; Wednesday nights feature art films like the just-wrapped Stanley Kubrick retrospective; Saturday nights occasionally host scary thrillers like Jaws.
The theater also heroically hosts young local bands at consistently well-attended after-hours shows starting at 11pm, providing teens a stage and a hangout rare among the scant opportunities to perform in the Napa Valley. And though most movie theaters' admission prices are pushing $10, the Cameo's tickets are still just a scant $8. What's not to love?
Cameo Cinema, 1340 Main St., St. Helena. 707.963.9779.—G.M.
Best Use of a Saw
Napa's Jesus Juarez , a pruner of grapevines at Moulds Family Vineyards in Napa, was recently awarded first prize at the seventh annual Napa Valley Grapegrowers Pruning Competition (why didn't we see this on ESPN?), which took place at Beringer Blass Wine Estate's Gamble Ranch in Yountville in February. Decked out with just a saw and some pruning shears, Juarez beat 51 other contestants, representing the best grape pruners in the valley. For his efforts, he won an ornamental belt buckle, $600 (which he said he would use for rent), a new set of shears and a brand-new saw. The contest is meant to reward accuracy over speed, though speed does count. Contestants begin with six vines and 100 points, and judges deduct points for every "mistake," from leaving split and jagged surfaces to leaving unpicked clusters of grapes. There used to be a time when the Napa Valley winner went on to the statewide championship, but since Sonoma County stopped sponsoring the event a few years ago, and with no other county stepping up to take over, that competition has been discontinued. For Jesus, the belt buckle will have to be enough. Until next year.—D.T.
Best Costume Check from the Voice of a Generation
Who knows why Bob Dylan does the things he does? At this point, the man is his own enigma, and his wardrobe is pretty damn mysterious, too. So it was with a none-too-surprised eye that owner Suzanne McLennan of Disguise the Limit in Railroad Square last year noticed Dylan pawing through outfits at her long-running costume shop. "He had a knit cap kinda pulled down, covering his hair, and a big jacket," McLennan reports, "and I could tell he wanted to be incognito." McLennan, a fan, managed to keep her distance while Dylan shopped, but chatted with him a little bit about Rusty Evans and Greenwich Village while she rang him up. She recounts the encounter with understandable reverence: "I think he's a wonderful poet," she says, "and he's written some great songs." And just what does Bob Dylan pick out when he goes into a costume shop? McLennan says he bought a gangster suit and a zoot suit, but from all reports, he wore neither onstage at Konocti Harbor Resort later that night. What the hell? Disguise the Limit, 100 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, in Railroad Square. 707.575.1477. —G.M.
Best Way to Honor a 50-Year Run
Considering he normally headlines concert and festival appearances around the world, it was big news last year when DJ Shadow announced he'd be spinning records in the aisles of Village Music for the entire final month of the Mill Valley record store's amazing 50-year run. Staying at the store every day for all of September wasn't a decision so much as it was a clarion call for the renowned hip-hop DJ—after all, he'd been buying records from owner John Goddard for 16 years. "I think the Internet is great and all that," Shadow explained on the store's last night in business, "but it really decimated the music industry. And I always just sort of feel like this dancing-on-the-grave sentiment that so many people have about record companies going out of business, I just don't get it. Because to me, like, if you're a fan of cars, if you're in the business of designing cars, would you really be happy that Ford is going out of business?" No doubt Village Music's closure was a blow to the community at large, but as the clock approached midnight and the cash register rang its final sales, the store's number one customer reconciled himself to a world without Village Music's vinyl-rich aisles. "The bottom line is John's retiring," Shadow said. "He's put in 50 years of providing. What are we gonna do—'No, John, give us another five'? He's done it for 50! So I'm at peace with it. He had a great run. Let's celebrate that."—G.M.
Best Two-Dimensional Person
There are "shadow people" all over Sonoma, silhouettes of people walking, playing, loitering or pushing shopping carts. The best and most playful of these paintings—though also serving as a bad example to danger-seeking youth—is the gleefully unexpected painting of a young silhouetted woman , created so that she appears to be sitting way up high on the roof of a former coffeehouse, gazing at the colorful mural splattered across the side of the Index-Tribune building at 117 W. Napa St. in downtown Sonoma. One has to wonder, if the shadow person falls, wouldn't it be a spectacular splayed-out crumpled shadow on the sidewalk? Think of it as a lesson to everyone not to climb buildings—whether it's to get close up to art or not.—D.T.
Best Last-Minute Adjustment of Daughter's Luggage
While we hate that Joe Montana has now moved from the North Bay in order to be closer to his son's football-famous De La Salle High School, a heartwarming report recently surfaced from a source wishing to remain anonymous. Apparently Montana, the NFL star turned winemaker, was stuffing an encouraging note into daughter Elizabeth's luggage on the eve of her departure to college when he was shocked to find that she'd taken a bottle of wine from his expansive cellar to take to school. This might be distressing for any parent, but it wasn't the thievery that upset Montana. The bottle in question was worth over $5,000. Taking stock of the sticky situation, and knowing that Elizabeth couldn't possibly tell the difference, Montana coolly replaced it with a $20 bottle, didn't say anything about it to his daughter or her mom, and packed off his college-bound daughter to school the next day. We hear he wins Super Bowls, too.—G.M.
Best Place for Stars to Hang
Featured in annoying magazines like The Robb Report, Vacation Homes, Millionaire, Cigar Aficionado and Luxury Living (not to mention more down-to-earth publications like Billboard and MIX Magazine ), the Sonoma Mountain Studio Estate was opened in 2004 and immediately became a destination for musicians and recording folks from around the world. Located in the hills above Penngrove, the ultra-luxurious, five-building, nine-acre gated compound—which was built to exactly resemble a 1760s Colonial "saltbox" home typical to Connecticut—was designed as an exclusive studio retreat for the world's best recording artists. The studio itself is a $4.5 million state-of-the-art professional recording oasis often used instead to host weddings, birthday parties and other highfalutin' events, providing the host of said event is willing to drop the prettiest of pennies for the honor. Considered one of the top recording studios in the country, the studio's interior is gorgeous, featuring stunning handcrafted wood work and acoustically engineered sound proofing—it's even got its own wide array of musical instruments to be used by visitors. Concierge service, a private yacht, your own chef? Natch. www.studioestate.com. —D.T.
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