Looking for Bakersfield's proudest cultural achievement of 2012? Get in the car and head east. Like 2,000 miles east.
After decades of perceived indifference, the capital of country music finally recognized its rowdy cousin, the Bakersfield Sound -- a music born of equal parts jubilation and desperation by a remarkably gifted cadre of displaced musicians, many of them Okies, thrown together during the great westward migration.
Though there are displays and collections of Bakersfield Sound memorabilia at several spots around town -- Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, the Kern County Museum, Trout's -- no single location has ever housed so much history from the era as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. The 5,000- square-foot display includes a sweeping mural that beautifully tells the story of the Dust Bowl migration, troves of memorabilia, costumes, instruments and high-tech displays, including a touch-screen feature that plays every top 10 hit ever recorded by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens (and that's a lot).
But the real power of the exhibition is that it bestows much-deserved acclaim on the performers not named Haggard or Owens who gave the piercing sound forged in those loud barrooms an identity that has endured for decades.
The exhibit will be up for another year, through December 2013. But even if most Bakersfield folks can't make it back East, thousands of tourists from all over the world will have the opportunity to see the influence our city had -- still has -- on country music.
A '100-year building'
It's not every day that a $28.5 million building goes up in Bakersfield. And it's certainly not every day that one as architecturally significant as the new federal courthouse in the Mill Creek area of downtown is erected (just look at some of the horrors built in the 60 years since the 1952 earthquake as proof of that).
The modern gem on 19th Street -- a marvel of green construction, state-of-the-art security and stunning design -- opened in July. The U.S. General Services Administration awarded the contract to Rhode Island-based Gilbane Building Co. and NBBJ Architects, which has offices all over the world.
With the elegant Bakersfield Museum of Art just to the west of it, the 33,400-square-foot building, divided between two stories of glass and steel, is the last and most spectacular piece of a once dilapidated area that has been transformed in recent years -- starting with the rehabilitation of Mill Creek Park -- into one of the most stunning blocks in our city. Oregon artist Lucinda Parker, commissioned to create original artwork for the courthouse, contributed five stunning abstract pieces that give the illusion of water in our parched climate. (All that's missing is a name. The "Earl Warren Federal Courthouse" sure has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?)
Granted, the building was designed and constructed with federal stimulus dollars, to which most developers don't have ready access. But wouldn't it be something if architects and builders could see the courthouse -- a "100-year building," as its designers describe it -- as the new bar to measure themselves against?
Speaking of stunning structures, some buildings get such extreme makeovers that we owe their owners a debt of gratitude for putting in the effort -- and money -- to transform eyesores into show-stoppers. I'm thinking particularly of some spots downtown that caught my eye in the last year. Henley's, the venerable camera shop on H Street, was updated and given a ton of sidewalk appeal; Muertos, a new restaurant opened by one of the co-owners of the defunct Fishlips, transformed a space in Wall Street Alley that had had one tenant after another in recent years; speaking of Fishlips, the owners of On the Rocks and Riverwalk Cafe did some major work to transform the legendary live music venue into a cool lounge and sandwich shop, brightening up the dingy facade while they were at it; the ugly vacant lot on the corner of 19th and H, bordered by the Padre Hotel and Front Porch Music, is undergoing and improvement, with murals due to be installed soon; and the biggest salute goes to the owners of The Mark restaurant, who spared no expense inside and outside the building on 19th and H. There's a beautiful bar, tasteful decor and my favorite: a glittering sign that cuts through the haze of winter evenings, beckoning to diners with its cheerful glow.
President honors Chavez
When President Obama came to Kern County in October to dedicate the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, the occasion became more than an attempt to appeal to Latino voters (though the well-timed visit certainly couldn't have hurt his re-election chances with that powerful voting bloc).
What his appearance really signalled to Kern County and the rest of the country was that the farm labor movement -- born in the fields of Kern County in the 1960s -- has become something more than that in the American consciousness: a hard-fought quest for social justice.
With the federal designation, the Keene home of La Paz, where Chavez lived and is buried, will forevermore be a site of reflection and tribute.
"Today, La Paz joins a long line of national monuments -- stretching from the Statue of Liberty to the Grand Canyon -- monuments that tell the story of who we are as Americans," said the president in his Oct. 8 address to an audience of 6,600.
Comings and goings
It's hard to say goodbye to faces we've grown accustomed to, especially when one of those faces is as sweet as that of Lisa Krch, longtime anchor at KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Krch, who has declined several interview requests, left the station in recent weeks, a decision reportedly made by management. But judging by the community's widespread affection for the newswoman -- she's been the source of more than one discussion on talk radio, and her fans are making their feelings known all over social media -- one wonders if her ouster could have been handled with a little more tact.
The Bakersfield Museum of Art will say goodbye to executive director Bernie Herman early next year. Herman has been at the helm for eight years and, in the words of Susan Hersberger, chairwoman of the museum's board of directors: "He put the museum on firm financial footing. In today's economy, when museums and symphonies across the country are struggling, we're in an enviable position at the museum with the financial stability we enjoy." The search for a new director is under way, and Herman has said he will stay on to help his successor get up to speed. The museum also lost assistant director and local artist David Gordon this year.
Over at the Kern County Museum, respected NOR creative services director Roger Perez was named to succeed the odd, blink-and-you-missed-it tenure of museum Executive Director Randall Hayes.
Doug Davis, father of the Bakersfield Jazz Festival, announced that the 2012 event would be his last as the main force behind the two-day concert, which has become a world-class affair over the years. The music educator/composer/author and his right-hand woman (and wife), Adele, have signaled a willingness to help out, but Davis is eager to start his well-earned retirement from CSUB. Bakersfield sax-man Paul Perez is handling the festival's booking, as he did last year.
Also retiring from the university is Peggy Sears, director of the Opera Workshop and voice studio. Bakersfield College will lose Sears' husband, Ron Kean, director of choral studies.
The new director of the Masterworks Chorale is CSUB educator Robert Provencio, who takes over from Phil Witmer.
Speaking of personnel changes ...
The Arts Council of Kern has lost at least three key staffers in the last year. Laura Wolfe and Jill Egland left for other opportunities, and artist Nicole Saint-John was laid off earlier this month, which leaves the council with one full-timer, one part-timer and an executive director on medical leave. Times are as bleak as they've ever been for the nonprofit advocacy and education group, which has been around since 1977. Earlier this year, the council lost two huge contracts that accounted for half its budget, a tough blow for any organization. The council, under board president David Coffey, is looking at a number of survival strategies while it determines the way forward.
Spotlight off ... for now
The Spotlight Theatre downtown halted productions indefinitely in May after nearly 14 years and 150 productions. Though theater education was offered over the summer, the 19th Street theater has been dark for most of the year while the board looks for underwriters (more on the Spotlight on Page 21).
A whole new ballgame
The first clod of dirt won't be turned until some time next year, and the most optimistic prediction for opening day isn't until 2014, but just the announcement of a new baseball stadium/entertainment complex warrants mention, so ambitious and tantalizing is the $20 million project.
Owners of the Bakersfield Blaze in November unveiled plans for a privately financed, 3,500-seat stadium that would become the first-phase centerpiece of the Bakersfield Commons mixed-use development project at Coffee and Brimhall roads. But even more exciting than the prospect of replacing the aging Sam Lynn Bal Park as home to the team is the possibility of outdoor concerts, a new movie theater, shopping and restaurants. Now that sounds fun.
"The idea of this is to be more than just a baseball field," oil executive and Blaze co-owner Gene Voiland told The Californian in November. "We are putting together an entertainment complex."
Sounds good to us
After a pretty sleepy 2011, SMG, the company that books talent for the city-owned complex of entertainment venues, really got busy. Playing at the Rabobank were an impressive array of talents who appealed to a vast cross-section of music lovers: Barry Manilow, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Eric Church, Demi Lovato, Morissey and the late Jenni Rivera. Speaking of Rivera, SMG should be commended for deepening its commitment to providing diverse entertainment, booking top names in Spanish-language music like Joan Sebastian, Mana and Rivera (who reportedly was set to return in 2013 before the tragic December plane crash that claimed her life).
Even more impressive: It seemed that SMG finally got a handle on how to use the wonderful Bright House Networks Amphitheatre, balancing successful spring/summer bookings like Firefall and a Rolling Stones tribute band with a local performance by the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra. SMG got it so right, in fact, that there was a small problem -- albeit a good one -- with the appearance of legend Willie Nelson. Knowing that parking at the Stockdale Highway venue would be tight, the city worked out a temporary fix, but if the amphitheatre continues to draw such talent (and let's hope it does), a permanent solution will become necessary.
Meanwhile, the team that brings acts to the Fox Theater continued to use the crown jewel of downtown to its fullest potential, even after the untimely death of Fox booking mastermind Danny Lipco in early 2012. Stopping by to fill seats were acts like Josh Turner, Jane's Addiction, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and ZZ Top.
Tom Rockwell of Trout's is getting more involved in booking shows, both at the famed Oildale honky-tonk he runs as well as other venues, like the Fox and Sam Lynn Ball Park. This year alone, he featured Pam Tillis, Tanya Tucker and the Little River Band.
Some feared that after Fishlips closed a year ago, the interesting-but-not-arena-ready acts booked at the venue would skip Bakersfield altogether. But B Ryder's in the southwest is bringing back many of the Fishlips favorites, like Cash'd Out and Reverend Horton Heat, while booking other fresh talents we haven't seen before.
On the down side, all-ages concert venue the Dome announced it is closing its doors, though a series of concerts and raves -- all purporting to be The Very Last One! -- continues.
Bako shark takes a bow
It's no longer big news when Bakersfield is featured on national television. But the recent fuss over the megalodon that prowled the prehistoric ocean around these parts was pretty exciting and presented a convenient opportunity for residents to learn more about our natural history. The rich fossil bed near Shark Tooth Hill northeast of Bakersfield was ground zero for a variety of television productions -- the most high-profile being Shark Week on Discovery Channel -- which featured the train-car-sized sharkzilla.
"You have these treasures in your own backyard," marveled Brooke Runnette, executive director of Shark Week. Thanks for reminding us.
If you've ever seen a concert or play or have a tattoo you're particularly fond of, chances are you owe a debt of gratitude to one or more of the following people who were integral to Bakersfield's arts/entertainment scene:
Danny Lipco was perhaps the most driven, successful concert promoter the city has ever seen. But he was more than that. When Lipco died in January at age 59, he left behind an entertainment empire, which included the ticketing agency Vallitix and the exclusive booking agency for the Fox Theater.
Alfonzo Galindo Jr. was given the nickname "Naked Al" because he had no ink on his own body, an irony considering how prominent he would become in Bakersfield's tattoo subculture as owner of Naked Al's Tattoo on Eye Street. Galindo died in January at age 52, but the shop that bears his name is still leaving its mark.
Maceo Davis, a versatile Bakersfield actor remembered by friends as "a ray of sunshine" in the theater scene, died in July at age 34. Davis gave standout performances in a number of plays and musicals, including "Big River," "A Woman Called Truth" and "The Rocky Horror Show."
Wendy Wayne had such a profound impact on the community that it would be impossible to list all the contributions she made. But in addition to her work in health care, with children and as a volunteer, she was a tireless supporter of the arts. Since her death in July at age 64, no First Friday, art opening or other cultural event has been the same without her beaming smile.
Homer Joy wasn't from Bakersfield, but after penning the tune that would become the city's anthem, no one will quibble if we make him an honorary citizen. Long before Joy died in September at age 67, "Streets of Bakersfield" had been cut by Buck Owens, but it wasn't until Owens rerecorded the song with Dwight Yoakam in 1988 that it became the hit it should have been all along.
Evan Bridwell, who as program director helped shape KUZZ into one of the major country radio stations in the country, died in September at age 59. During his astonishing 28-year career at the station, Bridwell weathered huge changes to the radio industry and country music, but KUZZ's dominance in the local market has never faced a serious challenge.
Bill Gruggett was to guitars what Picasso was to paint: a master. Though many feel Gruggett didn't receive the recognition he deserved until recent years, collectors pay top dollar for his work now. The luthier worked for Bakersfield-based Mosrite during the guitar maker's glory years before starting his own company. Though that venture folded, he pursued his craft for the rest of his life. Gruggett died at his Oildale home in October at age 75.
Lenny Lang was well-known in music circles not just for his skill on the bass, but also for his compassion. At the time of his death in October at age 59, he was a counselor at the Bakersfield Rescue Mission.
Karl Haas, guitarist and longtime music educator, both at Bakersfield College and Front Porch Music, died in December at age 66. In a 2010 interview with the Renegade Rip, the BC student newspaper, Haas reflected on what he loved about teaching: "Guitar class is ... well, I'll tell you that there was a guy who once got a speeding ticket on his way to school and I asked why. He said that he didn't want to be late, and I said he could've been a few minutes late. He responded and said, 'But this is my favorite class.'"