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Victorian Christmas Train Ride
THERE YOU ARE, ALL BUNDLED UP, climbing aboard the Victorian Christmas Train Ride in East Texas with your loved ones. The antique locomotive picks up steam as you sip hot cider and warble, uninhibitedly, your favorite carols. With the verdant foliage of the Piney Woods sliding by, you lapse into a contemplative coma, thinking about all the scenes in your life that you can’t TiVo.
If you get weepy just thinking about this idyllic picture, then you’ll need some more tissues, because the train ride could soon be but a bygone memory. The Texas State Railroad is in danger of becoming a static display, and whether or not it continues its thirty-year run as a tourist attraction beyond December 31 hinges on money, politics, and time.
It’s no secret that the state parks system is running on lean means these days. So it’s not hard to see why the 110-year-old railroad is on the chopping block: With annual losses of more than $1 million, it’s a financial albatross. But neither Texas Parks and Wildlife, which runs the railroad, nor the train’s supporters across the region want to see its demise. If the railroad is going to be saved, the state will have to grant it a last-minute reprieve in the form of some emergency money.
And what happens if it doesn’t get this stay of execution? First, the bad news. If the Legislative Budget Board doesn’t approve the $650,000 allocation that TPWD officials have asked for, then the railroad’s trains will be parked indefinitely come January 1. Yes, there’s talk of private investors taking over if this happens, but cranking things back up isn’t going to be like flipping a switch. For starters, there are a few right-of-way contracts—try more than a hundred—along the 25-mile route between Rusk and Palestine that will have to be renegotiated. As will the agreements with Abilene and San Angelo, the original owners of the railroad’s two steam engines, which mandate the locomotives’ return if operations cease.
The best-case scenario is this: The railroad gets the emergency funds, ensuring it’ll run through next September. When the members of the Legislature reconvene this January, they’ll decide the state should keep operating the railroad, as it has since 1976, and they’ll find the $11.8 million needed to keep it going (repairs included) through 2009. (Just imagine if all the sporting goods tax revenue went to the parks for a change.) The train continues its weekend runs and seasonal themed trips. Everybody wins.
There’s a good chance the Legislature will give the state parks their full funding in the next session—it’d be embarrassing for Governor Perry to let the Texas State Railroad just slip away like that—but without that crucial $650,000 up front, the railroad will still come to a halt before that. (Besides, who knows what that Lege of ours will do anyway.) So for now, we’re left to wait—and to hustle if we still want to catch the train. After all, this month’s two-hour holiday ride will be the most festive yet. If you’re not too distracted by the strolling carolers in Victorian costume, you might catch Santa as he visits from car to car and ask him to add one more thing to your Christmas list. Dec 2, 9, & 16. Depot located on U.S. 84, 2.5 miles east of Palestine; 800-659-3484; visitpalestine.com
Pas de Adieu
If only ballerinas were as evergreen as The Nutcracker itself, we would never have to imagine the Christmas classic without the Houston Ballet’s dazzling Lauren Anderson. But that’s a reality we’ll soon face when the 41-year-old retires at the end of this month after eight more performances as the Sugar Plum Fairy (a part she’s danced since 1983) and a one-night-only reprisal of her role as Cleopatra in the Jubilee of Dance. That she’s been with the Houston Ballet since her days as a pupil (she became the company’s first black principal in 1990) makes Anderson’s farewell performances all the more poignant.
The Sugar Plum Fairy is your signature role. How have you made it your own? No one who really knows me would believe this, but there’s a lot of Sugar Plum Fairy inside me. I just want everyone to be happy, and if I could solve all the problems in the world, I would. And that’s how the Sugar Plum Fairy is—nice and happy and positive. That sounds so pie-in-the-sky idealistic, but that’s how she is.
What is she like on a technical level? Oh, she’s not easy. If any little thing is wrong, you feel like it’s just an awful show. She’s so pure, and there’s nothing really fussy about her. You can’t act your way out of that.
What’s the story behind your nickname, the Chocolate Sugar Plum? One time after a show, I walked backstage, and there was a little girl in her mom’s arms who pointed at me and—you know how kids are so honest—said, “Mommy, Mommy, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s chocolate.” Her mom was so embarrassed, but I thought, “That’s wonderful. This child thinks I’m a piece of candy.”
You’ll also be performing a scene from Cleopatra in the Jubilee of Dance this month. It’s a complete opposite from the Sugar Plum Fairy, but it’s my favorite role. I’ll be dancing a passionate pas de deux that takes place when Mark Antony comes to accuse the queen of killing Caesar, his mentor. The challenge with Cleopatra is that she was a real person.
So after 24 years of dancing and being on your feet, are you feeling it physically? Honey, it hurts. But it hurt at 20. My feet have been janky since day one. I’ve never worn a pair of open-toed shoes. Hopefully my corns will go away so I can, but I doubt it.
Are you ready for your last performance? I don’t want to think about it. I hope that I can just hold back the real tears so I don’t look ugly. What’s been so wonderful about my career is the process of how I got to where I am. I had no idea I’d get into the company, let alone be a principal dancer. We have such a strong arsenal of dancers right now. I’m looking forward to sitting on the other side of the curtain and watching. Dec 1: Jubilee of Dance. Through Dec 27: The Nutcracker. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave; 713-227-2787; houstonballet.org
The Filter: Events
The Song Remains the Same
It’s been 45 years since Langston Hughes’ song-play “Black Nativity” debuted on Broadway, and the criticism then—“There is a lot of song but hardly any play,” wrote the legendary New York Times theater critic Howard Taubman—still applies. But now that it has become a holiday tradition almost as omnipresent as A Christmas Carol, such a fussy assessment seems entirely beside the point. When the Jubilee Theatre, for one, stages its own version of the Christ-is-born story this month, you can expect a small cast of only 10 (the Tremont Temple, in Boston, boasts 160 singers, in comparison) but some very big vocal performances. The back half of the show is quite nearly a church service, with cast members belting out, and sometimes reining in, well-loved gospel favorites. After all, in this play the song’s the thing. Dec 1—30. 506 Main, 817-338-4411, jubileetheatre.org
How do we know when we’ve made the right generalization? Is pop culture dumbing us down or smartening us up? Can you read people’s thoughts just by looking at them? These are just a few of the trademark questions asked by Malcolm Gladwell, the infinitely curious New Yorker scribe and author of The Tipping Point and Blink. This month the 43-year-old Canadian will be presenting his “meta-expertise” to the audience at Southern Methodist University’s Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series. And when it comes to hosting cultural icons—former heads of state, revered news anchors, Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners—the Tate series has no peer. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt, and social scientist Jared Diamond will also grace the lectern this season. Any questions? Dec 5. McFarlin Auditorium, 6405 Boaz Ln; 214-768-8283; smu.edu/tateseries
On the Road Again
For a vocalist whose commercial zenith has come and gone but who still has the intonation, lung capacity, and charm of his heyday, hitting the road with a second-tier tour sure beats full-fledged retirement. For Peabo Bryson, Deniece Williams, James Ingram, and Stephanie Mills—whose names are no longer as recognizable as their individual hit songs once were—the national Colors of Christmas show is a musical fountain of youth. When they stop in Texas this month, they’ll be singing holiday classics, certainly, but also rehashing their own hits (perhaps Bryson’s “By the Time This Night Is Over” or Williams’s “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” for instance). Of course, any performer is going to sound good alongside the El Paso Symphony Orchestra and the Christ Cathedral Sanctuary Praise Choir, two robust supporting acts who just might steal the show. It’s a win-win situation for all: The headliners get to prove they’ve still got it, and the audience gets a night of superb, multilayered music. Dec 7. Plaza Theatre, 125 Pioneer Plaza; 915-532-3776; epso.org
Bows of Jolly
If you want to float with the best of ’em at the annual Christmas Boat Lane Parade on Clear Lake (and, fingers crossed, take home one of the top awards), you’ll need, according to a previous winner, the following: “big things, moving things, lots of people, and great sounds.” It’ll also take exhaustive planning, a solid theme, many trips to Home Depot, handy volunteers, and thousands of twinkle lights to turn your powerboat into a prizewinner (the really serious also mandate costumes for everyone onboard and recruit musicians to play live music). But such preparation doesn’t deter folks from across the region from entering more than one hundred watercraft every year. It’s the spectators who line the route (which runs from the South Shore Harbour Marina and Nassau Bay Lagoon, through the Clear Lake Channel, out into Galveston Bay, and back again) who really benefit from all the hard work. As the boats slide by like buoyant, bedecked Christmas trees, it’s easy to take all those months of work for granted. But with the stars above and the shimmering reflection below, the payoff is stunning for all. Dec 9. South Shore Harbour Marina, 2551 South Shore Blvd; 281-488-7676; clearlakearea.com
Even if you factor in predictions for a wetter and possibly even cooler winter courtesy of El Niño (yes, he’s back), a snowy December remains a slim prospect for southeast Texas. (The freak mini-blizzard that hit two years ago practically ensures a flake-less winter; what are the odds that a frozen downpour will strike again so soon?) It’s not a little ironic, then, that the Houston Museum of Natural Science is taking climatic matters into its own hands this month with Snow Flurry III, a man-made whirl of white stuff that will envelop the museum’s main entrance for a day. Unfortunately for grown-ups, only the kids will get to play in the 80,000 pounds of cold flakes, packing snowballs, making snow angels, and building snowmen till their fingers freeze. Later in the month why not introduce your progeny to that other great seasonal tradition, New Year’s Eve? Before you abandon the kiddos (with a babysitter, of course) and scoot off to toast the end of 2006, tire them out at the more-age-appropriate New Year’s Noon countdown at the Children’s Museum of Houston. With an indoor parade, make-’em-yourself party favors, and (pretend) firework sparklers, you’ll likely feel a twinge of nostalgia for your younger self and those innocent days when you could actually remember how you spent the last few hours of the year. Snow Flurry III: Dec 9. 1 Hermann Circle Dr, 713-639-4629, hmns.org. New Year’s Noon: Dec 31. 1500 Binz, 713-522-1138, cmhouston.org
“It’s a testament to this country’s historical amnesia that tennis is now considered not quite American.” Zing! And the point goes to Tennis Magazine, which made that incisive assessment in its recent special report on the state of the game in the U.S. There’s no denying the slump: The Wimbledon quarterfinals were American-less for the first time since 1911; the highest-ranking American woman is Lindsay Davenport at only number eighteen (and she’s got to be thinking the r-word); and the American men are zero for the past twelve Grand Slam titles. Agassi is gone, Roddick hasn’t won a Slam in three years, and has anyone heard from the Williams sisters? But there are bright spots (or so says Tennis), like 26-year-old James Blake, who headlines the All American Shootout, in Austin, and the FedEX Kinkos Tennis Shootout Series, in Frisco, this month. He’s certainly gained traction this year, reaching the top five and winning five titles; that he’s made an improbable climb back up the rankings after suffering critical medical setbacks (a broken neck, paralyzing shingles) only adds to his appeal. Is there a story line more American than overcoming such adversity? For two nights in a row he’ll go up against Mardy Fish, his sometime doubles partner and a Davis Cup regular. Blake will then join his older bro Thomas for an all-brother showdown against Bob and Mike Bryan, currently the world’s number one doubles team. (The Bryans’ father, Wayne, will be manning the mike—apparently he’s an amusing verbal volleyer—during exhibition tie breaks, which will feature top players from area colleges; local wheelchair athletes and a battle of the sexes between 10-year-olds will be added to the mix in Frisco.) Serious tennis it’s not, but maybe it’s exactly what the sport needs right now: a fun diversion that reminds us how dynamic the game is and gets our minds off an uncertain future. Dec 15: Austin Convention Center, 500 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin; 512-404-4000; austinconventioncenter.com. Dec 16: Dr Pepper StarCenter, 2601 Avenue of the Stars, Frisco; 214-387-5600; drpepperstarcenter.com
Fort Worth, Houston, El Paso, San Antonio, Dallas
Bowl season, a college football fan’s favorite three-week stretch, kicks off this month. Like manna from the heavens, a record 32 postseason matchups will rain down on the faithful, providing one final surge of turf and testosterone before the fallow, pigskin-less months of spring and summer. And Texas, like the great football state that it is, plays host to a handful of them. Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl—Matchup: Mountain West versus Conference USA. Top gun: Some 10,000 military members and their families are expected to attend this year’s game, with discounted tickets offered to vets and complimentary passes for active duty personnel; a flyover, military band and honor guard performances, and induction ceremonies for new recruits will set the überpatriotic mood. Texas Bowl—Matchup: Big 12 versus Big East. Name game: This brand-new bowl is the fifth to be played in Houston—its predecessors are the Oil Bowl (1946—1947), the Bluebonnet Bowl (1959—1987), the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl (2000—2001), and the Ev1.net Bowl (2002—2005)—so don’t get too attached. Brut Sun Bowl—Matchup: Pac 10 versus the Big 12 or the Big East or the University of Notre Dame. History lesson: One of the oldest bowls, it’s been played continually since 1935 and was started as a fundraiser for a local Kiwanis Club; it’s seen three venue changes and eight name changes, including this year’s new moniker (what’s next? The Preparation H Bowl?). MasterCard Alamo Bowl—Matchup: Big 12 versus Big 10. TV darling: It’s always been one of the most popular bowls, but last year’s Nebraska-Michigan game was the most-watched college football broadcast in ESPN history. AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic—Matchup: Big 12 versus SEC. In the booth: Southlake resident Pat Summerall, known reverentially as “the voice of the NFL,” will take a brief break from retirement to call the game. Armed Forces Bowl: Dec 23. Amon G. Carter Stadium, Stadium Dr between N. Bellaire & Cantey, Fort Worth; 817-810-0012; armedforcesbowl.com. Texas Bowl: Dec 28. Reliant Stadium, Reliant Park, Loop 610S at 8400 Kirby Dr, Houston; 866-468-3926; texasbowl.org. Sun Bowl: Dec 29. Sun Bowl Stadium, Baltimore & Sun Bowl Dr, El Paso; 915-533-4416; sunbowl.org. Alamo Bowl: Dec 30. Alamodome, 100 Montana, San Antonio; 210-226-2695; alamobowl.com. Cotton Bowl: Jan 1. Cotton Bowl Stadium, 3750 Midway Plaza, Dallas; 888-792-2695; attcottonbowl.com