Best Of 2016

From sales to farming to art: Justin Leszcz doesn't mind switching careers.
DOYLE MURPHY
From sales to farming to art: Justin Leszcz doesn't mind switching careers.

Justin Leszcz sold cars, and that went pretty well. He then quit to grow vegetables in south St. Louis, and everybody loved them. Now at 39, he's a woodworking artist, and his work is all over the city.

That kind of career hopping wouldn't work just anywhere.

Other cities tend to trap people into a single occupation. It costs too much to start over or takes too long to make new connections. People just keep doing whatever it is they're doing.That can certainly happen here, but Leszcz is proof that St. Louis is the perfect launching pad for a moon shot every now and then.

These days, he's working away in a $350-per-month studio in the old Lemp Brewery. The second-floor space is filled with old-growth wood salvaged from St. Louis tear-downs, hand tools and projects that started off as experiments.

"The wood is the biggest thing," he says on a recent tour.

He's currently in love with longleaf pine, a red-hued wood made dense by a unique resin. He found that by slicing it thin, it becomes translucent and glows in the light. So Leszcz took strips, wrapped the edges in copper and soldered them together. The result is like a natural stained-glass window.

"It just looks like fire," he says, holding one of his creations up to the light.

It was that curiosity and enthusiasm that endeared him to some of St. Louis' top tastemakers. Celebrated restaurateurs Gerard Craft, Kevin Nashan and Kevin Willmann were customers. Leszcz says the three "bad-ass chefs" taught him how to focus and build a business. "Those guys, they want to help everyone," he says.

First, it was buying his specialty produce. Later it included encouraging his off-season hobbies, such as ceramics and wood. Following a divorce, Leszcz moved into an apartment and set up a wood shop in a closet, creating wooden spoons and bowls. He started taking commissioned work — lights for Sump Coffee, a wood counter for Lulu's Local Eatery. When Craft closed Niche and no longer needed Leszcz's specialty onions, Leszcz decided he too would make a big jump, to full-time woodworking.

He soon found his network of chefs and restaurateurs overlapped nicely with a growing circle of artisans. In the old brewery, he estimates he's one of about 70 artists and craftspeople. They occasionally host underground shows to raise money and share space for large installations. Leszcz, who has retooled his YellowTree Farms operation as simply YellowTree (www.yellowtreefarm.com), has also begun running a popular Airbnb operation out of his home near the Cherokee district. He displays friends' artwork and has found that guests are eager to buy the pieces. He gets to decorate with original artwork and his friends get to sell their stuff without losing a chunk of the profits to gallery fees.

It's the artists' cycle of life in St. Louis.

Because the Fox Theatre Can Still Work Miracles
HOLLY RAVAZZOLO

The Fabulous Fox Theatre changed my life.

It's true. I was eleven years old, on a field trip. I was sitting in one of those red velvet seats on the ground floor, less than 100 feet from that stage and those massive pillars and the giant elephant heads that screamed "exotic" in the Roaring '20s. The Fox had brought in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the St. Louis-born dance troupe known as Radio City Rockettes. And that decision planted a deep-rooted dream in the heart of one very awestruck dance kid.

Yes, by the time that beautiful curtain fell on the final kickline, I knew I wanted to be a Rockette. And it wasn't, "Oh, I feel like being a professional dancer today!" My thought process was more along the lines of, "I am going to be a Radio City Rockette if it's the last thing I do." I wanted to be up there on that stage. I wanted to wear one of those costumes lined with Swarovski crystals. And dang it, I wanted to dance that precision choreography and execute those flawless kick lines that had been wowing audiences since 1925, just four years before the Fox first opened its doors to a bustling city.

That show at the Fox was the beginning of an eleven-year journey. I advanced through dance classes. I learned all about precision and kicklines on my high school dance team. The best day of my life came when I was sixteen, when I was accepted to the Radio City Rockette Summer Intensive in New York City. And the worst days were whenever I went to the doctor and was told, yet again, that I wasn't tall enough to be a Rockette.

The Rockettes are all about precision — right down to the height of the dancers. To create the illusion of uniform height, a dancer in the troupe has to be between 5' 6" and 5' 10 ½". Me? I was stuck at 5' 5 ½".

But more years passed. I went to college. I started teaching dance classes. I minored in dance. Then, by some act of God, in my sophomore year I hit 5'6". And, yes, at 21, I still wanted to be a Radio City Rockette — just as much as that little girl sitting speechless at the Fabulous Fox ten years prior.

The summer after I graduated, I got on a plane bound for New York City to audition. About 500 Rockette hopefuls wrapped around Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater hoping to stand in that kickline. Yes, 500.

And here's where you start preparing yourself for a not-so-fairytale-like ending. Today at 23, I'm an editor at the Riverfront Times, not a Rockette. Life has a way of taking you where you least expect it.

But you know what? Even though I haven't added my own kicks to that famous line (yet), I still consider those auditions to be a high point in a story that isn't over just yet. It's a story that started because one beloved movie-house-turned-theater shared — and continues to share — nationally renowned performing arts with the people of St. Louis. And when you're a little girl from the Metro East sitting there in that amazing room with the red velvet and the soaring ceiling, you can't help but understand that the arts have the power to make you laugh, cry and even change the course of your life. You can't help but vow to do anything you can to be a part of it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I call a miracle.

Amy Milton riffs on cults, drugs, family stress. You know, the fun stuff.
COURTESY OF AMY MILTON
Amy Milton riffs on cults, drugs, family stress. You know, the fun stuff.

While a few dozen stand-up comics work the local scene with regularity, not many have allowed themselves the chance to tackle a headlining-length set, especially one as uniquely challenging as "GOOD," the one-woman show that comedian Amy Milton recently performed for a trio of performances at St. Lou Fringe.

The show, a darkly funny, first-person reflection on her life, tackled many of the same topics as Milton's stand-up act, including her time inside a religious cult and, later, family battles with drugs. Though Milton is understated in her delivery, her material digs deep — very deep — and touches on the complicated family dynamics that most audience members can appreciate, even if Milton's family takes things to the next level. Telling those stories honestly can be a trick.

"There's always an overlap of experience, and it's not always easy to determine the line between your own life and another person's privacy," Milton, 29, says. "It's an age-old writer/artist problem, arguably heightened for comics because nuance in jokes is challenging and we're mean people."

"GOOD" was a neat summary of the same feeling that Milton brings to comedy sets. She guesses that about 75 percent of the show originated in her stand-up, although "'GOOD" is a little heavier on family and God than her comedy club work.

Milton moved to St. Louis from Indiana in the summer of 2010 to get a creative writing MFA at UMSL. "I first tried stand-up around a year later, so I just passed the five-year mark," she notes. "As I started in — and haven't abandoned — fiction writing, I've had to adjust to the difference between what works and makes sense on a page and what works and makes sense spoken aloud to a sometimes drunk-and-uninterested audience."

With several co-hosts, Milton serves up the talk show Fatal Bus Accident at the Heavy Anchor (generally on the last Wednesday of the month), a show that'll soon hit the road. She'll also host Contraceptive Comedy at Shameless Grounds on October 29 and Two Girls One Mic at 1900 Park sometime in November.

The World's Fare returned to Forest Park this year.
PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
The World's Fare returned to Forest Park this year.

More than a century after the 1904 World's Fair established St. Louis as a city on the rise, Davide Weaver and his team have restored the festival to the rolling Forest Park hills where it was born. Having just completed its third year, St. Louis World's Fare Heritage Festival welcomed more than 25,000 attendees this August, says Weaver, who collaborated with partner Mike Landau to bring diverse artists, performers and food to the table.

This was no basic reboot: Weaver, an artist and entrepreneur himself, says he didn't want to recreate the colonialist trappings of the 1904 event. Hence the "World's Fare," a name that evokes the new festival's goal of offering a truly international "fare" to St. Louisans.

Over the course of three days, below the glow of a Ferris wheel, Weaver showed St. Louis what a world-conscious festival should look like. "We're the new St. Louis," he says. "We're the new World's Fare. And the new city owns it."

The Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater: Just one of this year's international visitors to St. Louis.
DEAN PAUL
The Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater: Just one of this year's international visitors to St. Louis.

Sure, St. Louis isn't New York City or Los Angeles — but we don't need to be in order to experience world-class dance. You can save yourself a plane ticket and enjoy ballet, modern, flamenco, musical theater and every dance genre in between right here, because nationally recognized shows and companies come to us.

Case in point: This year, nonprofit Dance St. Louis (3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, 314-534-6622) hosted its ninth annual Spring to Dance Festival, bringing in 26 dance companies of all styles from across the country — an event size that's unheard of even in some major dance hubs. Performances by companies including Paul Taylor Dance Company, Nashville Ballet, MOMIX and Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater rounded out the organization's 50th season.

Meanwhile, Broadway musical hits such as Newsies, the winner of the 2012 Tony Award for Best Choreography, graced the stage at the Fabulous Fox Theatre (527 N. Grand Boulevard, 314-534-1678) — and now the theater is bringing six Tony Award-winning shows in the upcoming season. Even Broadway game-changer Hamilton is coming in the 2017-2018 season.

It's not just traveling shows and touring companies mounting top-tier work here. St. Louis dance companies such as Big Muddy and MADCO regularly bring top-notch work by choreographers from both St. Louis and around the country to life, and Saint Louis Ballet now boasts 24 dancers and a school that is teaching another 350. Companies such as Leverage Dance Theater, Karlovsky & Company, Common Thread and Consuming Kinetics are also making a mark, providing performances as well as community involvement. A "barre crawl" to various St. Louis dance studios and lunchtime performances at Old Post Office Plaza? Yes, please!

It's all part of an intoxicating mix that keeps dance fans busy and theaters full.

Westminster Press co-founders Tucker Pierce, left, and Nicholas Curry, right.
PHOTO BY KATELYN MAE PETRIN
Westminster Press co-founders Tucker Pierce, left, and Nicholas Curry, right.

Glimpse through the doors of Westminster Press (3156 Cherokee Street, 806-535-0719) to see pops of color everywhere. Craft pieces cover the DIY rustic-style shelves, and canvases hang from the walls; a varicolored rag doll sculpture sits in a streetside window exhibit. It's a wonderland of hand-wrought goods, purchasable and not, all collected within what its owners call a "gallery, storefront and printmaking studio" all in one.

Founders Nicholas Curry and Tucker Pierce describe a goal at once political and artistic: to showcase creators with marginalized identities — artists and craftspeople whose work you might be less likely to see in mainstream galleries. Since opening last December, they've featured "women, people of color and LGBT folks," Curry says. Pierce describes "a community of artists interested in the type of work that engages with their identity, or artists who maybe feel marginalized in traditional art places."

Building that community, Westminster Press partners with organizations that have similar goals. They host book clubs for the Meetup group Queer STL and participated in a benefit for Pu Fest. They've also hosted pop-ups for a number of other art collectives. As they grow, they plan to host six to seven shows per year with three to four artists each. "Every show, different people come out," said Pierce. "At the group shows, people bring their community."

Their consignment selection takes a broader approach; it boasts wooden birds, metal-worked earrings, vibrant textiles, hand-printed poetry collections and woodblock lamps. This collection is based less on identity and more on works that fit into "maker culture."

"There still seems to be a marginality associated with craft itself," explains Curry. "As things become automated and mass-produced, we're losing a lot of these techniques and these trades. We want to focus on the people who are still making things by hand, who still know the old processes and are using them to make beautiful art objects."

The consignment items come from dozens of artists. Each purchase gives a little to Westminster Press (allowing its mission to continue), a lot to the artist (for their labor) and something to the buyer — after all, they get a hand-made addition to their household.

Aunt Claudette, just one of the many faces of Libbie Higgins.
YOUTUBE
Aunt Claudette, just one of the many faces of Libbie Higgins.

Carla was pissed. Some gal working the counter at the McDonald's on Dorsett Road was giving her lip. Carla didn't want lip, she wanted a McRib sandwich, along with a second McRib for the promotional price of one dollar.

And now this "Charlene" was saying she looked like a person who didn't need the extra McRib?

"McScuse me, bitch?" Carla raged, recounting the interaction as she filmed herself from the McDonald's parking lot. A large woman in a purple Minnie Mouse T-shirt, Carla's hairstyle was an ill-advised combination of mullet and bouffant that appeared to have been blow-dried by a jet engine. She spoke with a clipped Missouri drawl. She held her phone in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other.

The video, "Woman Rages Over Extra McRib," went viral almost immediately, though many didn't immediately realize that "Carla" was in fact a character dreamed up by Maryland Heights comedian Libbie Higgins. Millions watched and shared the clip, gleefully quoting her indignant demands that viewers find Charlene and "tell her Carla sent ya, and then you throat-punch her or punch her in the cooter!"

Higgins' character work has made her one of the most sought-after comics in the region. Since "Carla" visited McDonald's in November 2015, Higgins has developed the persona in videos uploaded to her YouTube channel, racking up hundreds of thousands more views.

Her path to comedy notoriety didn't begin in a club, though she's now a regular at comedy shows around St. Louis. A special education teacher, Higgins got her start in 2007 by video-blogging and trolling, creating characters and scenes simply to generate laughs online.

That's how Higgins became "Aunt Claudette," a church lady who wears a bedazzled neck brace and lusts after Donnie Wahlberg and the New Kids on the Block. Acting as an on-the-scene reporter, Aunt Claudette has also exposed Target's lack of plus-size clothing, claimed to be Justin Bieber's aunt and even waved a floppy purple "dilder" at Larry Flynt during the Hustler publisher's visit to St. Louis.

Higgins' devotion to her roles has taken her far beyond YouTube, and her love for New Kids on the Block hasn't gone unnoticed. She's been featured on the TV show Rock the Boat, which chronicles the band's performances on a cruise ship. At a recent NKOTB concert, she was invited to introduce the group — as Aunt Claudette — before thousands of screaming fans.

Already an accomplished viral hitmaker, Higgins seems to be barely scratching the surface of her comedy chops. For this funny lady, the sky is the McLimit.

The Black Rep's production of Death and the King's Horseman was a high point for founder Ron Himes.
STEWART GOLDSTEIN
The Black Rep's production of Death and the King's Horseman was a high point for founder Ron Himes.

It's no secret the Saint Louis Black Repertory Company suffered a series of setbacks in the recent past. The impending sale of the Grandel Theater in 2013 forced the company to hit the road on the cusp of its 37th season.

"It was short notice. We had no way to start the season or build a campaign," recalls the company's founder and artistic director, Ron Himes.

The loss of what had been its home for twenty years and the uncertainty surrounding the Black Rep's immediate future resulted in smaller audiences for the next couple years. The one-two punch of no theater and shrinking audiences could have been fatal, but Himes and the extended Black Rep family kept fighting.

Himes likens it, naturally, to a play.

"In the first season we did J.B.," he says, referring to Archibald MacLeish's modern retelling of the biblical story of Job. "These past few years reminded me of that. Another test, another test, another test."

Last year felt like a rebirth for the company. There was a sense of stability again. Audiences slowly resumed their former sizes as the year went on, and opening nights felt like an event again.

The importance of that last item can't be understated. There is nothing quite like opening night at a Black Rep production. They are joyous affairs somewhere between family reunion and block party, and you better dress like you mean it. People look sharp — the clothes are new, the hats are bold and there is a sense of anticipation. By the final show of the season, the spirit of the old Grandel lobby was reborn.

Himes agrees. "We've turned a corner. Here we are. Here we stand."

That "we" absolutely includes the audience.

"I was at a seminar this summer and someone asked me if I felt like my work was done now that there are more black actors on stage in St. Louis." Himes throws his hands up as he recalls the conversation. "People still ask me if the Black Rep is 'done.' It's not just about getting black actors opportunities or producing the works of black playwrights: It's also for this community. We're bringing theater to an audience that isn't going to see the shows elsewhere."

Stray Dog's Bat Boy: The Musical -- just one of the many plays you could have seen last year in St. Louis.
JOHN LAMB
Stray Dog's Bat Boy: The Musical -- just one of the many plays you could have seen last year in St. Louis.

Officially, St. Louis has two seasons: baseball and no-baseball. But there is a third season that remains somewhat hidden because it suffuses those other two. St. Louis is blessed with a superabundance of theater, and the season for it wraps around the calendar, never-ending and always beginning.

You're likely reading this at the end of September. If you hurried, you could buy tickets for the West End Players Guild's 106th season-opener, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, on September 30. Next week you could be watching St. Louis Shakespeare perform Macbeth, or the world premiere of Maya Arad Yasur's Suspended at Upstream Theater's first show of its twelfth season. (Or you could see both. Definitely see both.) Stray Dog Theatre opens its new season a week or two later with The Rocky Horror Show, just in time for Halloween.

"Sure," you think. "It's fall and a lot of companies start their seasons then." But you can pick any month at random and find a show to see. Let's take February — there's nothing going on February, right?

Boom: To Kill a Mockingbird at the Repertory Theatre St. Louis. A Doll's House, Stray Dog again. Mustard Seed Theatre has a production of Yasmina's Necklace that starts in late January and carries over through the middle of February — that's a two-fer. That's how easy it is to find a show in this town.

I see more than 40 plays a year, and I never leave St. Louis. Mostly I never leave because there's always a play to see, so trust me on this: You can find something amazing and affordable on a stage in St. Louis almost every weekend of the year. Even at Christmas — The Rep runs its production of A Christmas Carol through 2 p.m. on December 24.

There's always going to be the odd weekend that has no shows (New Year's Eve for one), but there are no major gaps. When the companies that start now wind down in April or May, here come the boys of summer: Stages and the Muny both take the stage in June, St. Louis Actors' Studio breaks out the LaBute New Theater Festival in July and New Line Theatre ends its 26th year in August with the musical revue Out on Broadway: the Third Coming. That's eleven months and roughly 50 shows in my future — and it could be your future, too. Think about it. – Paul Friswold

The Hi-Pointe: Always a high point.
PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
The Hi-Pointe: Always a high point.
Webster’s defines “film” as “that thing that leads to an argument every date night.” If you just take what Hollywood gives you, you’re not going to be happy. But when St. Louis is your home, you’ve got plenty of options. Let’s say you’re partial to the grisly films of grindhouse auteurs such as David Durston, Marino Girolami and Lucio Fulci. Andy Triefenbach’s Late Nite Grindhouse series has what you want. Once a month Triefenbach brings gory treasures of world cinema to the Moolah Theatre and Lounge (3821 Lindell Boulevard, 314-446-6868) for a bloody weekend of midnight showings. Just this year he’s screened Fulci’s Cat in the Brain, Girolami’s Doctor Butcher M.D. (a.k.a., Zombie Holocaust), and Durston’s I Drink Your Blood. That’s a murderer’s row of murderers. Maybe you’re more partial to the more sensitive aesthetic delights offered by French auteurs. The Robert Classic French Film Festival is a joint production of Cinema St. Louis and the Webster Film Series, and it highlights great films from France. It’s not a nostalgia fest by any means. This year’s festival included early French New Wave gems (Elevator to the Gallows) and more recent fare (Mathiew Kassovitz’s searing 1995 film Hate), presenting a balanced picture of France’s contribution to cinema history. There are similar celebrations throughout the year for nations (the Italian Film Festival takes place in April at Washington University, continents (the African Film Festival normally takes place in April, also at Wash. U), and religions (the long-running St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, which delivers the bulk of its films in June and then shows additional films throughout the year).

But what if you can’t wait ‘til then to see a film? The Webster Film Series (www.webster.edu/film-series) runs year-round, and it shows everything from foreign films (F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is on the schedule for October 22) to cult classics through its Strange Brew offshoot (Office Space is October 5). The Webster series also partners with Cinema St. Louis to bring you the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase and the St. Louis International Film Festival.

And while we’re on the subject of Cinema St. Louis, let’s not forget Qfest, the city’s only LGBTQ film festival. Not even a broken water main could keep Qfest down in 2014, and with its move to the Hi-Pointe Backlot (1002 Hi-Pointe Place, Richmond Heights; 314-833-5307) this year, the future looks both dry and bright.

Now: What are we going to see next? Hint: It looks like a leopard, it smells like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and it’s about the future that is now.