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[whitespace] Artist Steve Magliori
Eric Reed

Mano a mano: Artist Steve Magliori offers a salutation to one of the characters in his "Petaluma Heritage Mural," a comfort to four-way traffic jammers stuck at the corner of Washington Street and Petaluma Boulevard North.

'Best of' local culture--
a diversity of delights

DEFINING SONOMA County culture is no small task. Our culture is us. We the people of Sonoma County: we brainy book-writers and balloonists and bikers and balladeers; we bead-wearing beachcombers, buying bubbly at the ballet; we body-building backpackers bouncing boyishly in the buff; we beer-bellied bunny-breeders boasting about boating in the Bahamas; we boldly bangled bingo-boosters, buoyantly baking baguettes and brie for the boys in the band; we bungee-jumping beef barons building big, big barbecues while bitching about boycotts and borders and bombs; we baptized believers in Bibles and Buddha; we blaspheming barbarians brandishing broomsticks at boys in blue; we bare-bottomed bards and bright-eyed belchers and beggars and bowlers and bodhisattvas and babes. Put another way: Culture is what you see when you walk down the street. Here are a few of our favorite sights.

Best Profane Band Name

The art to naming a band is like no other. Certainly the Silver Beatles couldn't have guessed that the punny shortening of their name would rocket with them to stardom; the fame of U2 and UB 40 (dis)honors the dole system in the United Kingdom; and the Mothers of Invention had a perverse necessity to set themselves apart. Most everyone has a favorite name for the band that they can secretly imagine themselves fronting. My own personal pick was Peer Group until I realized that the moniker sounds as if we would have to play some awful kind of fusion-y jazz. And then there's Lungbutter. Certainly no other local heroes have created a band name as vomitously memorable as this punk outfit. We salute these gruesome lads as they break their mother's hearts with each new gig.

Best Place to Strike out on New Year's Eve

Forget those kewl clubs and restaurants offering pricey multicourse New Year's Eve dinner-dance extravaganzas. Ditch the trendy street parties with the scant food and the fireworks display blocked by the city administration building. The stylish place to ring in the new year is Petaluma's Boulevard Bowl. Open 24 hours, seven days a week, this bustling joint goes to town on New Year's Eve with unlimited cosmic bowling (strobe lights and illuminated pins) from 9 p.m. till midnight. Employees distribute hats, horns, and whistles, and serve sodas and champagne in plastic flutes. With DJ music, spontaneous dancing on the concourse, free pretzels, a New Year's countdown on the loud- speaker, and a buffet breakfast at midnight, how can you strike out? Boulevard Bowl, 1100 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma; 762-4581.

Best Unknown Cultural Resource

That would be the 3.3 acres of dogbane recently protected by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District just south of the Luther Burbank Center. The rare parcel was preserved in December by the county Board of Supervisors as part of a deal allowing a developer to construct several dozen homes in what was previously declared a greenbelt area and after intense lobbying by Native Americans. Dogbane is an indigenous plant traditionally used by Indian people for cordage and net-making. The parcel just off Highway 101 is one of the largest stands of dogbane left in the western United States, according to experts.

Best Role Model

Sure, he's got a day job just like the rest of us, renting canoes and boats to tourists and day-trippers from his Burke's Canoe Trips launch pad in Forestville. But when he's not overseeing the intricacies of tying on a life preserver, local hero Bob Burke is preserving life in other ways. A tireless volunteer, Burke is different from those of us who drop a tin of peas in the food bin each holiday season and consider our tithing complete. Burke is the kind of community activist who dispenses holiday treats, joy, and kind words to kids who are fighting for their lives. Dedicating himself to those youngsters who brave leukemia and other cancers, or whose lives are otherwise distressed by extreme illness, Burke hosts holiday parties, finds special gifts that weary parents might not be able to afford, and organizes weekly outings for those children who don't have a lot of fun between doctors' visits and chemo treatments. A very special person indeed, Bob Burke is our top pick for best role model. May all those whose lives he touches grow up to be as loving as he is. To donate your time or cash, contact Bob at Burke's Canoe Trips, 887-1222.

Best Place to Tune into Folk and Ethnic Music

Once a month, a remarkable exponent of the Bay Area music scene holds forth in the acoustically inviting, 160-seat hall of the Universalist Fellowship of Sonoma County. The concerts are intimate, eclectic, often ethnic, and highly rewarding. "I just want it to be a place for local performers to play in a concert setting, and try and give some bands some exposure," says series organizer Robert Lunceford, who also mans the soundboard for the shows. Eleven concerts have been held since the series started in 1996, featuring such diverse acts as Aire Flamenco, Cats & Jammers, Gator Beat, the Westerlys, and Lunceford's own Celtic band Atlantic Shore. Several more shows will be held before the annual break during the summer months. 3641 Stony Point Road (at Todd Road), Santa Rosa; 584-0511.

Best Place to Prolong Christmas

Christmas is hyped religiously for months before the event, so why not extend it a tad afterward when all the holiday pressure has been tossed with yesterday's gift wrap. Three Kings Day at Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves, held the first Sunday after New Year's Day, is a beloved Spanish tradition celebrating the Epiphany. It is a real treat for children. Settle at a table in the cozy tasting room and listen as carolers, accompanied by a rousing piano, perform by the roaring fireplace. Eventually the three wise men, decked out in all their glittering finery, magically appear from parts unseen and present gifts to all the children. There's free cake and hot chocolate for the kids. Adults can purchase bubbly to sip as the festivities unfold. Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves, 23555 Hwy. 121, Sonoma; 996-7256.

Best Place to Laugh Yourself Silly

Well, you never know who's going to turn up in Pauline Pfandler's improvisational acting classes. Perhaps your shrink, hairdresser, personal trainer, or dental hygienist. That's because the award-winning director has put together a class of theater games that is fast becoming a local phenomenon. And as word spreads, more and more people who never thought they could act are signing up for a hilarious eight weeks of theater classes. What makes improv so much fun? You get to play for hours. You can pretend you're the president's girlfriend--and dump him! You can fall in love with a snail, be a chimpanzee, and eat as much chocolate cake as you want. Best of all, you can fall on the floor and laugh yourself silly. So if laughing is what you haven't had enough of lately, check it out. Pauline Pfandler's Improv Acting Class is held on the lower level of the United Methodist Church, 500 N. Main St., Sebastopol; 824-9140.

Best Place to Pipe in Local Flavor

Step into the tasting room at Johnson's Alexander Valley Vineyards and you are faced with a rare intersection of history, viticulture, and high technology. Standing majestically against the far wall is an imposing, three-manual pipe organ, a glossy, cream-colored antique first deployed at the Capitol Theater in Sacramento. It arrived at the winery in a series of crates, but is now almost fully functional, with 864 pipes ranging from pencil-sized high notes to booming 20-foot diapasons. In accordance with its theatrical heritage, the remarkable instrument also features an array of percussion and sound effects: cymbals, sleigh bells, a bird whistle, a marimba and a glockenspiel, with the vibraharp still to be installed. Each note can be triggered electronically, and a growing repertoire is recorded on a computer program activated from the winetasting bar. "We play it every day," says winery owner Tom Johnson. And yes, they take requests. Johnson's Alexander Valley Vineyards, 8333 Hwy. 128, Healdsburg; 433-2319.

Best Place to Watch One Movie and Listen to Another

What is it about the upstairs movie theaters in Sebastopol Cinemas that brings out the worst in its patrons? Is it the small screens or the cushy seats, or is it the sound from the neighboring movie that often seeps in? Take our last outing. Behind us, two middle-aged women were engaged in a loud gossip session through the coming attractions with no letup as the opening credits began. Finally, after our numerous, futile-pointed stares, we politely asked them to hush, earning their scorn. Then the woman next to us unwrapped a several-course meal, including chips, a planet-sized sandwich, a couple of oranges, dessert, and a drink. The crumpling, crunching, and slurping continued through the middle of the movie. That's when someone near the front began rocking what seemed to be the squeakiest seat in the house. Hey, if we wanted to listen to yakking and finger licking, we'd simply stay home and rent a video. Sebastopol Cinemas, 6868 McKinley St.; 829-3456.

Best Place to Stay Grounded

You can let your imagination fly while remaining safely on the ground at the Pacific Coast Air Museum, a collection of working aircraft of varying ages, sizes, and functions, ranging from a 1953 Russian-made twin-engine transport to a Vietnam War-era Huey helicopter. The museum is open four days a week for walk-around inspections and conversation with the knowledgeable volunteer staff, but once a month, they schedule a "climb aboard weekend" and invite visitors to do just that. Housed at the Sonoma County Airport, PCAM is open weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Pacific Coast Air Museum, Becker Boulevard at North Laughlin Road, off Airport Boulevard, Santa Rosa; 575-7900.

Best Place to Curse the Long, Verdant History of Farming

The light is the yellowy golden color that must have filtered through the walls of Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater's gourd-home; the air is as crisp as the leaves on the sidewalk; the children are excitedly planning their costumes for the upcoming end-of-month candy-gorge; and all you want to do is to get from the northern confines of the county to the southern end. An easy enough job 11 months of the year; the state has kindly provided a freeway for just such a trip. But when southern travelers approach Petaluma on weekend afternoons in October, a terrible thing happens: the traffic stops. And starts again. And then stops. Surely, you think to yourself, there must be some terrible accident. You might even stifle back a tear worrying about the poor innocents lying helplessly on the pavement. And then, as you inch along in first gear over the grade, you realize it is something far uglier than an accident: it's the maze. The maize maze that has been erected along Stony Point Road just alongside the freeway for the last two years. Yeah, sure, you realize with a bitter acuity, it's fun when you are lost in the labyrinth crafted laboriously by local farmer Jim Groverman, but when you already have a pumpkin and a happy afternoon memory, it's galling to slow down so that others can gawk. What's worse is when you yourself slow down uncontrollably alongside the maze so that you can gawk. Let 'em brake.

Best Proof the Drug War Is Stupid

Does the left hand attached to the long arm of the law know what the right hand is doing when weeding out drug criminals? Last September, the Sonoma County Police Chiefs Association adopted a common protocol for the enforcement of Proposition 215, which allows the cultivation and use of medical marijuana. But the same day that the police and district attorney adopted these guidelines, Rambo-like state law enforcement officials in low-flying helicopters swooped down on terrified Cazadero residents as part of a 12-hour CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) raid. One legitimate medical marijuana patient spotted gun-toting agents in camouflage gear skulking around her property. After much harassment, she managed to explain the new protocol on marijuana usage to the hapless state officials, who had no idea it existed.

Best Place to Be Shocked by the Beauty and Ugliness of Public Art

Like an eye-opening lesson on the best- and worst-case scenarios of small-town public art projects, Petaluma is home to two impossible-to-miss displays of unabashed civic pride: one stirring and nostalgic, the other down right creepy. On the south side of the intersection of Washington Street and Petaluma Boulevard, is the just-completed Petaluma Heritage mural, by the hard-working artist Steve Magliora. Fifty feet long, it is a Cannery Row-style depiction of the people, factories, riverboats, and steam engines that once existed in the former egg capital of the world, beautifully painted by Magliora and rippling with colorful river-town atmosphere. Directly across the street, in the same trash-strewn corner it's stood on for a decade now, is the memorial sculpture to Bill Soberanes, self-proclaimed "peopleologist," newspaper columnist, and founder of the World Wrist Wrestling Championship. The statue is a weird, grimacing, intertwined bronze battle between a vein-popping Soberanes--his then-young face contorted in a horrifying expression of effort and pain--and a more sedate, anonymous combatant (modeled after Bill Rhodes, an ex-wrist wrestling champ and former director of the Polly Klaas Volunteer Search Center, who resigned amid allegations of child molestation). The only arms shown are the ones locked in battle, giving the impression of a memorial to some legendary disagreement between two angry amputees. The best thing that can be said about the frightening structure is that it seems vaguely homoerotic, and the hollow heads are, apparently, an excellent place to dispose of cigarette butts and cola cans.

Best Reason to Go to Church

Once a month or so, the corner of Howard and Western in downtown Petaluma becomes a lively, happy, colorful pageant of youthful enthusiasm and good old-fashioned dress-up showmanship as dozens of predominantly young Latinos (and a number of elegantly mature couples) show up for St. Vincent de Paul Church's well-attended formal dances. Though the occasional casual dresser does appear--some of the themed dances are intentionally more formal than others--it is charming and heart-stirring to see well-dressed couples and couples-to-be taking the air on the steps outside the church hall on a balmy spring night before returning inside for social mingling and spirited footwork. Ranging in price from $7 to $10, the dances are fundraisers for the Hispanic Youth Group run by the church and have become a staple of Petaluma's vital Hispanic community. Call the church at 762-4278 for schedule information.

Best Convergence of Old and New

For the past 67 years, the Speer family has sold groceries at a bustling corner a block off River Road in Forestville--as evidenced by the well-worn wooden floorboards. Over the decades, the store has expanded 12 times, but the family feeling remains strong, as does customer loyalty. A butcher counter and deli, an in-house bakery, a well-stocked wine aisle, and a heavily trafficked produce department help this local crossroads draw regular shoppers from as far afield as Cloverdale and Bodega Bay. With annual sales of about $5 million, "we're just big enough that we can still buy right and keep our prices down," says Stan Speer, whose parents founded the business in 1931. The family's collection of rare decorative Jim Beam decanters and liquor bottles remains displayed on a long shelf high on the front wall, a colorful link to the store's past. Speer's Market, 7891 Mirabel Road, Forestville; 887-2024.

Best Radical Historian

Sonoma State University's best-known media man arrived as an assistant professor of sociology back in 1973, when he was "astounded to discover that the department didn't offer any media classes." Carl Jensen changed that in a big way. By 1984, he had established the new Communications Studies Department. But even before that, in 1976, Jensen had introduced Project Censored--his annual effort to spotlight important news stories that deserved wider exposure--which by 1992 had garnered its own PBS special hosted by journalist Bill Moyers, who has served on the project's advisory board. Frustrated when Project Censored didn't earn the widespread attention he sought, Jensen countered with a yearly list of Junk Food stories "to see if I could make the media fall into their own trap." They did. Nowadays, "I get more press out of Junk Food News," he admits ruefully. Retired since 1996, Jensen remains active on the Project Censored panel of judges and is at work on his next book, Stories That Changed America: Muckrackers of the 20th Century.

Best Radio Voice in the Night

From Armstrong to Zawinul, pre-bop to post-fusion, Jerry Dean has heard it all--and so have his listeners, as his conversational steel-wool baritone has been an enduring accompaniment to jazz on the Bay Area's airwaves. The only master of ceremonies the Russian River Jazz Fest has ever needed, Dean is best known for and through his tenure at the late and lamented KJAZ-FM, the now defunct Alameda-based 24-hour jazz station where "I was the first person on the air when they signed on in August 1959, and the last one when they signed off in September 1995." Dean now holds forth from a studio in his East Bay home, where he concocts his weekly traditional jazz session for local listeners on Santa Rosa's KJZY. "What I'm doing is exactly what I did for all those years at KJAZ," he rumbles. Broader self-syndication is in the works, but for now this regional radio institution is a Sonoma County exclusive. "Jazz with Jerry Dean" airs from 6 to 10 p.m. on Sundays on KJZY 93.7FM.

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From the March 26-April 1, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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