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Ridin' High

That Ain't No Bull: Suburban cowgirl Shelli Gregersen of Santa Rosa takes the (mechanical) bull by the horns at Kodiak Jack's Saloon in Petaluma.

Photo by Eric Reed

'Best of' local culture--
having a crush on wine country

DEFINING SONOMA COUNTY culture is a little like writing a dictionary: if you don't use a lot of words, you're probably cheating somebody. Our culture is defined in part by our geography, in part by our history, and in part by the names in our telephone books. Our culture is us, we the people of Sonoma County: We keen connoisseurs of costly caffeine, carousing in cafes and cantinas and clubs; we crane-watchers and cliff-clamberers and carriers of cameras; we coaches and cops and co-authors; we card-carrying consumers of collectible kitsch; we coy creators of complex comix; we clean-cut collegians, compulsively conked-out at classical concerts; we conversational club-hoppers clamoring to be cool; we common-law companions and crab-crackers and cowboys and kids. Put another way: Culture is what you see when you walk down the street. Here are a few of our favorite sights.

Best Place to Ponder What
Might Have Been

In a delicate, laurel-perfumed glade just beside Hwy. 101 south of Cloverdale, a brass historical marker honors the site of Icaria-Speranza, a once-thriving commune established in 1881 by French followers of social scientist Etienne Cabet, whose 1840 novel Voyage en Icarie described a society without violence, misfortune, or private property--utopia, in a word. Already the French proto-communists had reinhabited the old Mormon town of Nauvoo, Ill., but financial difficulties caused several Icarians, as they called themselves, to search for a new location in fertile California. Along what's now known as Icaria Creek in Cloverdale, they built their dream, farming several hundred acres of vineyards, orchards, and wheat. Alas, utopia proved elusive here, too, for it seems that people are never quite as communitarian as they believe. The bountiful Icaria harvests created a desire for profit, which eventually doomed the share-and-share-alike economy and social structure of Icaria-Speranza. The commune was history by 1886. Still, standing among the petals of light sifting through the trees--the historical marker stands only yards from the site of Icaria's main barn--it's hard not to think, "If only ... " Look for directions to the California historical marker near the Asti exit on Hwy. 101.--S.B.

Best of the Worst of Teen Angst

We are Sonoma County teenagers, and this is our life: These are the Sampoerna clove cigarettes and imported Bidis we bought after seeing them in the "bad" column of our freshman Health text. We hang out at A'Roma's. All afternoon. (Or at least until an employee asks us if we've bought anything. "You mean, today?" we ask as we grudgingly leave.) "What do teenagers do around here?" an adult asks. Do? We drive around the Airport Cinemas parking lot smoking a piddly joint stolen from one of our parents, then go in and see the same movie we saw last week. We complain about high school (certain of us love high school, but the rest of us fear and pity them). We figure out schemes for arriving late and leaving early; Jim writes a note from my dad and I write one from his mom. We start drinking too young. We do Xtc with 20 of our best friends when someone's parents are out of town. We all feel much closer the next morning. We talk behind each others' backs. Then we go back to A'Roma's. Is it really that bad? I suppose not. Often, on these glorious spring days, we'll find ourselves on the way to the beach, the river, the awesome Sebastopol cemetery, the Inn, the Phoenix, Doyle Park, or Shiloh Park, and we'll remember how lucky we are to live here. --Z.L.

Best Place to Hear Bach on a Sunday Night

For the original unplugged music, there is no finer local venue than the 120-year-old Occidental Community Church. For the past 17 years, it has played host to the annual concert series sponsored by the Redwoods Arts Council. "It's intimate. The acoustics, I think, are the best in the county," says RAC president Kit Neustadter. And if the sight lines are not so great and the pews a little uncomfortable, "nobody falls asleep at our concerts and the sound is fabulous," he adds. So is the list of performers the RAC has attracted to tiny Occidental--a Who's Who of chamber groups, string quartets, and gifted soloists. The RAC programs are two-thirds classical and one-third eclectic--jazz acts, storytellers, folksingers, even an unusual adaptation of The Tempest performed with Balinese shadow puppets. Tickets for each show are sold separately, but many sell out in advance. For details, call the Redwood Arts Council at 874-1124.--B.R.

Best Place to View a Vanishing Landmark

OK, so economy-sized purple concrete dinosaurs probably never really roamed the earth. That didn't stop the T-Rex links at the Pee Wee Golf Course in Guerneville from becoming a modest local landmark over the years. And even though the miniature golf course is closed--a victim of the new bridge over the Russian River that is now under construction--it has not yet been dismantled, leaving the proto-Barney figure in place for another round of colorful look-how-deep-the-flood-was-this-time photos in the local daily. But this may be the last time, as the folks who built and operated the Pee Wee Golf Course--and similar facilities at Lake Tahoe and Carson City--reportedly plan to relocate the venerable vertebrate to one of those faraway sites. Pee Wee Golf, Hwy. 116 at Neely Road, Guerneville.--B.R.

Best Place to Step Lively
(Out of the Closet)

So you're gay but you don't feel too gay about hanging out in that biker-swamped river bar or being suspiciously stared down as you boogie with your partner among those who are straighter than a forest. So where do you go? If it's a Sunday night you can go straight to Heaven. Club Heaven, that is. Taking over the Funhouse each Sunday since July of '95, Club Heaven is manned by Randy Rowlands, the master planner behind this weekly funfest who provides his own security staff to ensure that each week is as safe as the last. "Our community is very diverse," says Rowland. "When we first opened, our community was very nervous about coming downtown, but we have a policy: If you don't get along with our clientele, you're not welcome. Period. But," he adds brightly, "we have had absolutely not one problem at Club Heaven. Not one. And, every week I try to create something different or unusual." Among his unusual offerings are the Rowlands Revue of drag queens and kings, which draw an audience that Rowlands estimates is about 60 percent straight. Agreeing that drag performances are often a drag for female audience members who might feel insulted by the garish depictions of womanhood, Rowlands stresses, "This is theater. It's not sloppy, and it's not a put-down. It's the art of performing as a female without the gaudiness that could go along with it." With the success of the Santa Rosa location, Rowlands is lobbying to open Heaven on Saturday nights at Guerneville's former Ziggurat club, hoping to fling wide the doors this April 19, just weeks before the Women's Weekend bash takes over the river. What amazes Rowlands most about the success of his club is that Sunday nights are among the least sexy of the week, yet hundreds still come out to mix and mingle. "We've become a destination spot," he says proudly. Club Heaven, 120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. $5. 544-6653.--G.G.

Best Place to Soak up Ethnic Folk Music

Who'd have guessed that a former boxing gym at the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa would become the premier venue for folk and ethnic music in Sonoma County? Yet that is the improbable history of the Sebastopol Community Center, which in less than a year and a half has presented a remarkable array of off-the-beaten path musical performers. The first annual Sebastopol Celtic Festival in September 1995 "got the ball rolling," says center director Kim Caruso, and the 500-seat room has since played host to Indian sarod master Ali Akbar Kahn, Scottish fiddler Alastair Frasier, Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai, and nights of music, dance, and drumming from Peru, Africa, and the Caribbean. Folkie performers over the past year include Tom Paxton, Cheryl Wheeler, and U. Utah Phillips. Plus blues concerts, R&B shows, and Grateful Dead (taped) dance parties. The center is also the co-sponsor of the upcoming Kate Wolf Festival, which will expand to two days when it returns in the summer. Sebastopol Community Center, 390 Morris St. 823-1511.--B.R.

Best Short Sunday Drive

Stands of firs, laurels, and oaks shaggy as raccoon coats, old barns gray and weathered as a codger's beard, a stalwart Victorian schoolhouse, a valley so quiet that a bird's song seems thunderous, a ridge so smooth it's like exploring Ava Gardner's arm, and ocean views so wide you can see all the way to distant centuries--this is Coleman Valley Road, Sonoma County's best-kept paved secret. There are no shops or malls along the way, no restaurants (quaint or otherwise), barely any buildings of any kind. The reason to traverse Coleman's couple of dozen miles is for the pure, slow, elegant pleasure of driving straight into the county's best scenery without any commercial interference--the nearly lost experience of becoming part of the scenery yourself. At the main intersection in the center of Occidental, point your wheels due west (there's a sign). Coleman Valley Road concludes at Hwy. 1 just north of Bodega Bay. First-timers will want to drive it east-to-west, as the connection on the coast isn't marked.--S.B.

Best Place to Achieve Rapture

For some of us, there are few pleasures as acute as standing, dusty to the knees, on a baking-hot June day in the aromatic glory of the Sonoma County dump. What could lead one to Petaluma's Recycletown for hours of olfactory adaptation and free hot dogs? The art, of course. Hosting its annual "Oh, Rapture! It's Scrapture" contest of objets d'art culled entirely from recycled items (don't call them junk), the Recycletown staff don heavy Western-era costumes--sashaying around vehicular paeans to the hot glue gun, risk-taking sculptural oddities employing skis and ironing boards, and small, simple configurations of beauty wrought entirely from Barbie parts and paper clips--before they perform their yearly skit. Ideas recycled from year to year and surprising loveliness found in the dump, that's scrapture: an evocation of a throw-away culture remade into configurations that even the fussiest housekeeper couldn't bear to toss. And all of it celebrated on possibly the hottest, stillest afternoon in June with plenty of serious work, plenty of free sodas, plenty of deliciously burned hot dogs, and plenty of goodwill, dust, smoke, and laughter to go around. Oh, rapture! Recycletown at the Sonoma County dump, 403 Mecham Road, Petaluma. June 28. Free. 795-3660.--G.G.

Best Places to Catch a Latin Beat

Here the language is Spanish, the fashion vaquero--that of the Mexican cowboy. Dressed in boots, white cowboy hats, black shirts, and spiffy white dinner jackets, the Mexican dance band alternates between gentle ballads and galloping rhythms. Welcome to Planeta Furia, a 18-and-over Latin dance club on Seventh Street in Santa Rosa that offers an adults-only area for drinking cervezas. Check your machismo at the door; a sign there reads: "No: colors, bandanas, starter jackets, baggies, weapons, or gang groups. Yes: cowboy hats and good clean fun." A short walk across town, a tuba player pipes a soul-stirring backbeat for a swirling set of dancing señors and señoritas. Here, the drummer stands at the front of a crowded stage overflowing with sassy brass and Latin percussion instruments. On the dance floor couples swing, hip to hip, arm in arm--passionate and sexy. This is Los Caporales. Located in the same Railroad Square building that once housed Magnolia's rock club, this stylish new venue offers on weekends the best of contemporary Mexican music and dance, including banda (Wednesdays and Thursdays are American music nights). No minors, please. Patrons fall within two categories: couples dancing amid a comet's tail of swirling lights, and young men watching from the sidelines or kidding around over arcade soccer. At $15 and $12 respectively, the cover charges seem steep at first, but include thorough, no-nonsense security and an authentic Latin band in pleasant, friendly surroundings. Planeta Furia, 528 Seventh St., Santa Rosa, 578-4445. Las Caporales, 107 W. Fourth St., Santa Rosa--D.B.

Best Place to Eat Free Food
on a Saturday Morning

R&B means "rhythm and blues," of course, but locally it oughta be called R&B&F--rhythm and blues and food--because there's just something about gettin' your mojo workin' that gets your appetite workin', too. Johnny Otis understands this. Otis, Sebastopol's most famous R&B vibes player, pianist, hambone leader, apple farmer, and preacher, serves up the hot tunes and hot food every Saturday at 9 a.m. in a live broadcast from Copperfield's Books for KPFA (94.1-FM). Come on in for biscuits and blues, muffins and shuffles, soup and soul; all the foodstuffs, free for the taking, are provided by Johnny's pals at local cateries. For two hours, Johnny spins classic oldies, provides wonderful from-his-own-life stories about the songs and the artists, and frequently launches into prodigious, if not downright righteous, political testifyin' while the food is fryin'. Copperfield's Books, 138 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 823-2618--S.B.

Best Place to Catch the Blues
on a Friday Night

You'll never mistake Negri's for a trendy wine bar. But the funky, smoky Italian restaurant and dance spot in downtown Occidental is the place to hear legendary bluesman Nick Gravenites. Best known for writing "Born in Chicago" for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and credited with helping to bring the Chicago sound to San Francisco in the early '60s, the founding member of super-group Electric Flag continues to refine his craft. A songwriter for Janis Joplin, Gravenites is still creating and recording songs and living the blues. If you ask, sometimes he'll belt out "Born in Chicago," and, well, sometimes he won't. You just gotta catch Gravenites in the right mood--a blues mood, so to speak. Negri's, 3700 Bohemian Hwy., Occidental. 874-3623--S.P.

Best Picnic Spot

Don't know about you but some of us remember way back when Sunday afternoon was widely considered "family day," a now nearly extinct notion that was once as American as not burning the flag. Food was the primary focus, with massive spreads of chicken and biscuits and Aunt Dot's gooey apple pie. The adults gathered to trade tool tips and recipes on the veranda while the kids leg-wrestled on the well-manicured lawn. Happily, this tradition is still alive outside of reruns of Happy Days. Each Sunday, the beautiful square in downtown Healdsburg comes alive as dozens of families gather to behave civilly toward one another in public. The picnic tables become festively ornamented with bright tableclothes and overflowing baskets of food. Music--live and recorded--wafts through the air as the multicultural assembly transforms the spot into a heartwarming homage to familial love--D.T.

Best Thing to Do After Losing an Election

You know what they say: All the world's a stage and politics makes strange bedfellows. But does that explain why Eric Koenigshofer took up acting after losing the 5th District supervisor's race last year? Probably not. Still--in his winning acting debut--Koenigshofer recently pontificated with panache in Sonoma County Repertory Theatre's You Can't Take It with You. Playing a stuffed shirt circa 1938, Koenigshofer as Mr. Kirby seeks to prevent his son from marrying into a nutty family. By play's end, the old capitalist softens and accepts his future in-laws. Koenigshofer--the candidate-turned actor--enjoyed an applause-filled respite from the political theater.--S .P.

Best Place to Spend May Day

Every May 1, rancher Bill Wheeler calls back the true believers to his rolling 320-acre property off Coleman Valley Road to reconnect with the high, heady days of the late-'60s, when Wheeler Ranch was the quintessential "hippie commune" (as described in Harper's, no less). "There are no rules!" was the old Wheeler cry. You still hear it, though nowadays the reply often is "But at least there's Prozac!" What's fun about Wheeler's May Day picnic is the playful mingling of Deadheads and beats, songbirds and bongo drums, meadows and sky, and--out on the dirt road leading to the ranch--VWs and BMWs, plus kids of all ages around adults of all sanities. Almost everyone at some point winds up hot and drippy inside a makeshift clothing-optional sweathouse. When you arrive--bring wine, food, and, well, you know--look for the ruggedly handsome guy with the most holes in his jeans. That's Bill Wheeler. Drive five miles west of Occidental, just past Oceansong Farm. Sometimes there's a sign, sometimes not.--S.B.

Best Place to Name-Drop

Since going secular in 1981, the Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts has played host to a steady stream of big-name talent, most of whom have left their mark at, if not actually on, the facility. Bedecking the walls of the spacious backstage lounge are large clusters of autographed photographs of the stars who have passed through, many on the way up (Nashville songstress Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dead-apparent Phish, country sweetie LeAnn Rimes), others whose careers peaked some time ago (boho Edie Brickell, perpetual comeback queen Pia Zadora). A few regulars are on the wall more than once (new publicity shots are required), and some of the juxtapositionings are just plain odd, as the pairing of lounge king Wayne Newton with the silent Marcel Marceau, or finding rumpled activist Ralph Nader sandwiched between paint-by-numbers country star Garth Brooks and perpetually hip word-comic George Carlin. But the collection is not 100 percent complete, lacking, for instance, the late crooner Roy Orbison, whose final California tour included a memorable stop in Santa Rosa. Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 546-3600.--B.R.

Best 1996 Show Worth its Waits

It took a heap of unnecessary legal bills for a local good guy to make it happen. That was the downside. The upside was the show itself, with reclusive neo-hipster Tom Waits--a Petaluma area resident--headlining a rare assemblage of intriguing singer/songwriters that also featured T-Bone Burnett and spouse Sam Phillips, Charlie Sexton, Alejandro Escovedo, and the tragically underappreciated Tonio K. Even at $100 a seat, the Aug. 11 benefit concert at the Raven Theater in Healdsburg--a fundraiser for theater owner Don Hyde's legal defense fund--was an instant sellout. Living up to the stratospheric expectations of ticket-holders, the once-in-a-lifetime gig dominated conversations for weeks afterward. Hyde, busted on bogus Kentucky drug charges by an anonymous informant, got off, too.--B.R.

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From the March 27-April 2, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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