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Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006 02:32 pm

2006 Best of Springfield

Arts & Entertainment

By Mike Manning
Springfield Art Association
700 N. Fourth St., 217-523-2631

The Springfield Art Association, which traces its start to the Amateur Art Study Club, founded in 1909, is more popular than ever. The reasons are clear. “We have something for everybody,” says executive director Angie Dunfee. “We have Edwards Place, which is great if you’re a history buff or into the decorative arts and 19th-century politics. We also have the gallery. Our arts library has publications available nowhere else in the city, and you don’t have to be a member to use it.” Art classes for adults and children run year-round. For the first time, this fall the SAA provides art classes to homeschoolers. Guided 45-minute Edwards Place tours, started in 2005, have expanded this year and are available at 11 a.m., noon, and 1 and 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Earlier this month, the SAA was added to the Springfield Mass Transit District’s historic Lincoln bus route. Tourists may disembark on Fifth Street, return to the bus, and conclude their treks downtown.
Runner-up: Prairie Art Alliance

Marly’s Pub
9 West Old State Capitol Plaza, 217-522-2280

In the raucous world of live music, the fickle finger of fate rules without question. Finding a great live-music venue in Springfield can be a major life decision, forcing you to weigh the choices of nightclubs, bands, cover charges, and parking. The verdict is in: Springfield live-music lovers prefer Marly’s Pub over all other stages. Improvements to the sound system helped catapult the downtown bar to No. 1, as did the acquisition of a 3 a.m. license. But we all know that the music is the only thing that matters, and here is where Marly’s surpasses all. The bar books national touring acts, local favorites, regional bands, and weekly regulars. The Warehouse, an occasional concert venue, and the now-defunct Viele’s Planet (R.I.P.) tied for second place.
Runner-up: (tie) the Warehouse and Viele’s Planet

Old Capitol Art Fair
Before the Rendezvous, before the Rail, before the Carillon Festival, there was the Old Capitol Air Fair. Jeff Perkins, chairman of the 2006-2007 fair, says that the secret of the event’s longevity — it’s been around since 1961 — is consistency: “It is always the third weekend in May, and this year people were just itching to get outside.” Perkins says artist participation is also consistent, with about 170 booths sold. “That number never fluctuates by more than 10 or so,” he says. “Above all else, the artists value Springfield, Ill., as a buyers’ fair — not true with some larger art fairs, especially in the snowbird states.” Another factor is the city’s corporate presence. A bare office wall is a terrible thing to behold, and many are set right with purchases from the fair. The larger institutions also support the fair with underwriting, Perkins says. If he had one wish, it’d be to increase the amount of prize money awarded to artists. “The better the prizes, the better the competition and quality,” he says.
Runner-up: Edward Place Fine Art Fair

“ABE,” WABZ (93.9 FM)
With those omnipresent private listening devices plugged into people’s ears these days, permitting more choices than anyone knows what to do with, being the best radio station takes being something special. For Springfield listeners, WABZ (93.9 FM) has got what it takes. The slogan of “Abe,” as the station is marketed, says it all: “We play anything.” Now, that isn’t exactly true (no Mitch Miller, Mozart, or Miles Davis yet), but anything within reason is still far better than hearing the same songs from the same era over and over as you do on those other stations. Along with their interactive playfulness on the Web and the addition of the simply fabulous Liz Willis in the morning, Abe has won the ears and votes of our fair city.
Runner-up: “KISS,” WXAJ (99.7 FM)

Rockin’ Robin
2909 N. Dirksen Pkwy., 217-528-5200

One gets the feeling that the floor plan at Rockin’ Robin was designed with the dancer in mind. Unlike the downtown dance clubs, there’s no dress-to-impress mandate at Rockin’ Robin. As one reader tells us, “I don’t have to get cute to go in there. I can go in my clothes I just finished gardening in and still fit in.” RR’s surprisingly diverse clientele appears to come prepared for a workout — and boy do they work it out! With its elevated dance floor, you’ll feel as if you’re on a pedestal, and definitely on display, as you groove, gyrate, Cha-Cha Slide, or freestyle to the beat in one of the largest dance venues, square-footage-wise, in town.
Runner-up: Karma

Centennial Park
No question but that Centennial Park’s skateboard area, constructed in 2003, has brought crowds to Springfield’s far west side. No actual head count has been taken, but compliments abound and a nearby parking lot with a capacity of 100 vehicles is always busy during nice weather, reports Mike Stratton, the veteran Springfield Park District employee who took over last month. Not everything’s rosy, though: “We also get some complaints,” Stratton says. “The culture of skateboarding sometimes brings graffiti from unknown persons.” The language used in the unwelcome tagging is particularly noisome, he says, so maintenance crews are there almost every day and the park police are making more stops.
Runner-up: Skank Skates

Mowie’s Cue
1277 Toronto Rd., 217-529-7616

Bar manager Ron Austin, a fixture since Mowie’s Cue opened 14 years ago, credits the establishment’s location, less than five minutes from the University of Illinois at Springfield and Lincoln Land Community College, for its continued success. But Mowie’s isn’t just popular with students, he says: “A broad range of customers from all over are regulars here. Another thing is that our hourly rates are a dollar or two cheaper than anywhere else in town.” The discounted day rates go up at the stroke of 6 p.m. “Days are slow, but after 6 every table is busy seven days a week,” he says. In addition to pool, Mowie’s offers darts, shuffleboard, Foosball, and air hockey. Plans are afoot to expand the menu, which has offered deli sandwiches for years, to include burgers, fries, and mushrooms. The bar’s signature drink, the Wiki Waki Woo, has a list of ingredients longer than some short stories. The business has purchased the NFL Season Ticket, which will allow patrons to watch any NFL game in progress during the season. Additional TVs are being purchased to accommodate the anticipated demand.
Runner-up: Break Time

Gus Gordon
Perhaps it’s time to give Gus Gordon his lifetime-achievement award and let someone else have a shot. Springfield’s TV weatherman is a perennial favorite with readers, but don’t assume that it’s because he’s a hometown broadcast star. You see, Gordon keeps getting better and better. This year he stretched his acting muscles, not only in the Muni’s production of Chicago — wonderfully slimy, definitely a reach for our lovable Gus — but also in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, in which he played several different comedic characters. Should Gordon ever decide to relinquish his throne, we’re pretty sure Mary Jo Curry, the readers’ No. 2 pick in this category and another hardy perennial, would easily slide in. Curry, who is known for her voice, showed a strong comedic flair in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, and her turn in Chicago made us think she’d be a great Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
Runner-up: Mary Jo Curry

Mike Manning
Mike Manning, whose work seems to be everywhere in Springfield, including in this edition of Illinois Times, began dabbling last year in acrylics and this year started producing pen-and-ink drawings like hotcakes. “I haven’t tried to sell them,” he says. “I just think it’s important for an artist to try new things.” For an artist known for his vivid pastels, the black-and-white drawings are a bit of a departure — but not too much of one. Some are autobiographical: the tavern where he grew up, his rescue by his father from a swimming pool, portraits of relatives who’ve passed. And there are still familiar themes — Abe Lincoln, jet fighters, animals (what’s with the alligator gar?), and musical instruments. Perhaps the biggest factor accounting for Manning’s consistent popularity with the people, is that he spends a lot of time with them and they spend a lot of time with him. You’ll frequently catch him with his pen and sketch pad at table at the Alamo or the Brewhaus or set up with his pastels and easel at the Old State Capitol Plaza. A highlight of Manning’s year was the call from the State Journal-Register, commissioning a pastel to mark the Illinois State Fair. The daily published the poster and sold prints. “It was fun, and I’ve had some new commissions from that exposure,” Manning says.
Runner-up: William Crook Jr.

Best Buy
3193 S. Veterans Pkwy., 217-698-8551

Springfield has plenty of worthy businesses that specialize in video gaming, but readers say Best Buy is tops. It’s hard to argue, given the extensive selection of new and favorite titles, many at discounted prices, for all current (and a few dated) gaming systems. What we like best: The store has more than half-a-dozen gaming stations where the kids can try out the latest titles, slay all their enemies, gather up treasure, figure out shortcuts, and move to the next level. Consider it free babysitting as you shop for your home-theater system. Watching the pimply-faced zombies score points is almost as fun as playing. During a recent visit, a prepubescent munchkin was rocking out to “Smoke on the Water” on a guitar-shaped controller, playing Guitar Hero on a PlayStation2 system. Anything that can turn you into a rock star for $69.99 is a bargain. Take that, Keith Richards.
Runner-up: Game Stop, White Oaks Mall

Chicago, the Muni
How could a musical named after the Windy City go wrong in the capital city of Illinois? It can’t! Once again, shows at the Muni got the nod from readers for Best Musical Production. Doug Hahn directed and Gary Shull choreographed first-place finisher Chicago; Laurie O’Brien’s Aida was a strong No. 2. Both had top musical scores and strong casts; both played during the horrendous summer heat wave, and audiences still came! Chicago featured some of Springfield’s favorites, including Mary Jo Curry and Kates Rotroff as Velma and Roxie, respectively; the irrepressible Gus Gordon as sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn; and Lori Ann Fahnders as prison matron Mama Morton. A stylish backstage set, including a nifty theater marquee, also was a hit: It was the work of scenic designer Nathan Cooke, who died unexpectedly in June.
Runner-up: Aida, the Muni

King Pin Lanes
3115 E. Sangamon Ave., 217-544-0838

Like those major-league fields that just seem to have more balls hit out of the park, some bowling alleys just seem to favor players. League coordinator Peggy King suggests that that factor is the secret of King Pin Lanes’ success. “We’re not doing anything special, but of all the houses in Springfield we have the highest average house scores for league bowlers,” she says. A few years ago, the lanes were improved with the installation of a more durable synthetic material down the first 20 feet of each of the 36 lanes. Leagues run year-round these days, but nonleague play is permitted between 8:30 a.m., when the lanes open, until 5 p.m. and between 9 and 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends during league nights. Adult games are $2.45, not including shoe rental. There are special prices Tuesdays and Thursdays. Serious competitive leagues bowl Monday through Friday, and social leagues for beginners play weekends. Certified instruction is available. The full-service Johnny’s Restaurant, inside the bowling alley, satisfies the appetites of hungry “alley cats” between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Runner-up: Strike ’n Spare West

Knight’s Action Park
1700 Recreation Dr., 217-546-8881

With batting cages, miniature golf, driving range, go-karts, a wave pool, and water rides, it’s easy to understand why Knight’s Action Park has proved so popular year after year with Illinois Times readers. Founder George Knight Sr. was a golf pro when he opened the gate for the first time on Wabash Avenue in 1952, about where Ace Hardware is today. Now son Doug Knight runs the business, and he reports a very good year for this Springfield landmark. The water rides have closed, but most of the rest of the park remains open through October. Besides crediting the Lincoln attractions for bringing more busfuls of schoolkids to Springfield, he also notes new additions to the site for its lasting appeal. “The Royal Flush water slide and Shanghai Willie’s [a pizza, sandwich, and fruit-smoothie emporium] were added in 2006,” Knight says. “We also held our first Great American Family Picnic in conjunction with our July 4 fireworks display.”
Runner-up: Washington Park (playground)

Karaoke by Cynthia at George Ranks
Everybody knows that the deciding factors in choosing where to go for a karaoke experience are location and the host. Somehow George Ranks has created an atmosphere conducive to karaokeness — a place where the distant dream of becoming that music star you always knew you could be if that darn state job wasn’t tying you down seems achievable. Cynthia Cubbage is the hostess with the mostest simply because she cares about her singers. She encourages the shy, compliments the unsure, and pushes the confident to greater achievements.
Runner-up: Sluggo’s

Micah Walk
Micah Walk is on a roll. The engaging twentysomething Gillespie native progressed from talked-about solo sensation to Springfield’s best musician in only a few years’ time. During this productive period, he’s played weekly gigs at Mojo’s and Marly’s, formed the Micah Walk Band, recorded an all-original CD, and traveled the Midwest as a coffeehouse performer. What’s Walk’s secret? He’s just plain good. The original songs are listenable, both in lyric content and musicianship. He picks appealing cover songs and does them in his own style. His voice is pleasing, dynamic, and interesting. The music is heartfelt and danceable. Best of all, he is humble, modest, and an all-around nice guy. Our man about town, longtime Illinois Times columnist Tom Irwin, placed second as Best Musician.
Runner-up: Tom Irwin

Recycled Records
625 E. Adams St., 217-522-5122

Make sure you’re sitting down, because you won’t believe this one. Recycled Records won the Best Music Selection category. Yes, it’s hard to believe, in this day of comprehensive corporate control, that a family-owned business in downtown Springfield could year after year hold its own against the big-business music retailers. All it takes to see why is a visit to the place that makes the bold claim of “You’ll like us if you can find us.” The music selection is extraordinary, with new and used disks displayed side by side and hundreds of CDs for $4. Then there’s the yearly blowout sale and, of course, thousands of ancient vinyl LPs upstairs. You can’t find something? The staff will order it and call you when it comes in. Recycled Records’ crowning glory is its old-fashioned service. Gary and Mark Kessler and their knowledgeable, friendly staff deserve immense credit for building and running a unique and desirable establishment right here in downtown Springfield.
Runner-up: Best Buy

There is some great historical analogy that describes a continuing epic battle between two great powers in which one always wins no matter how the other attempts to overcome. This would most fully explain the rivalry between F5 and Late Arrival in the Best Band category. For the last several years, F5 has come out on top, but every year Late Arrival is right there as a close second. F5 does what no one else in local live music does: consistently pulls large crowds to their shows. Others get good crowds and some get rabid fans, but F5 is the best draw in Springfield and therefore wins the Best Band category year after year. Perhaps it’s the ever-changing song list or the contemporary sound, but whatever the reason, the result is the same. Congratulations to F5.
Runner-up: Late Arrival

Chris “Metal Chris” Hupp
WQNA (88.3 FM)

Direct from WQNA, the little station that would, could, and does, comes your choice for Best Radio DJ, Chris Hupp. Proper thinking would lead one to believe the majority of people who might accidentally tune in to Metal Mayhem, Hupp’s Monday-night program, would be terrified and horrified and just plain go hide. Then how could “Metal Chris” handily capture this coveted spot of Best Radio DJ? Torture, threats, and diabolical mind control comes to mind, but it’s more than that. The sparkling personality and incredible enthusiasm of our subject come shining through like a dark star penetrating the light of the universe.
Runner-up: Josh Roberts (WFMB, 104.5 FM)

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