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Since time immemorial -- which in Houston means about ten years -- the Art Car Ball has been an annual contender for Best Party of the Year.
Thousands of folks, many of them dressed to make artistic statements, would pack a downtown parking garage to celebrate the upcoming Art Car Parade, that procession of bizarre, hilarious and outrageous automobile sculptures that attracts 250,000 viewers each year. They'd stroll among the art cars parked on the different levels, they'd ogle the fire-eaters and the women wearing hubcap bikinis, they'd dodge the skaters speeding by. Tickets might be $25 or, eventually, $40, but once you got in, the beer and wine were free, and you could eat as much of the tasty down-home Mexican food as you could politely inhale before supplies ran out.
The April weather always seemed to cooperate, and as the night wore on everyone would gather on the roof, under the stars, beneath the giant skyscrapers housing the city's powers that be, and they'd listen to Joe Ely or Brave Combo or that year's hot zydeco band bash out a set.
There were nights when it all gelled so perfectly that you forgot about August heat waves or Southwest Freeway traffic or flat, featureless geography, and you wondered why the hell everyone in the world didn't move to Houston.
And then there was this year's ball.
Instead of a downtown parking garage, it was held at the Astrodome -- the Reliant Astrodome, as the naming-rights-aware invitation put it. Any happy thoughts of meshing the skewed sensibilities of art cars with the kitschiness of the '60s-relic Dome were pretty much banished as partygoers descended the ramp to the stadium's floor.
The art cars were there, but they were scattered about in an oppressive gloom that permeated the barely lit place. Somewhere a band was playing, but you couldn't tell who, or where, or what kind of music it was supposed to be. Thousands of people milled about as always, but now they were swallowed up by the vastness of the place, and huge gaps between groups made the floor seem empty.
A cluster of people gathered for the traditional judging of the night's fashions, but what is typically a high-energy whoops-and-cheers performance seemed overwhelmed by the Dome's sheer enormity and dreary murkiness.
Many of the artists displaying their cars were upset with a last-minute edict from the city fire marshal that forced them to empty three-quarters of their gas tanks before they entered the building. Others were still smarting from last year's crisis, when for the first time parade organizers limited the number of entrants.
The funereal atmosphere might have been ignored by dedicated partiers, but one other change had taken place: This year, your $40 ticket got you precisely one drink. You were shelling out five bucks a beer after that. And if you wanted food, you could walk up the aisles of the field-level seats to the concourse and pay for a Dome Dog. That delicacy, which hasn't appreciably improved since the Astros moved to Enron Field, was served by concessionaires grumbling among themselves about the outlandish attire of some of their customers.
You were stuck with Dome Dogs or questionable nachos unless, of course, you paid for a VIP ticket. A VIP ticket that cost one hundred and twenty-five dollars.
If you were willing to shell out $125 for the Art Car Ball -- and almost 450 people were -- you got access to a roped-off section of the Dome, where you could look out on all the piss-poor Dome Dog-eating fools as you washed down all the St. Arnold's beer you wanted and noshed on hors d'oeuvres from Dish, Solero and the Century Diner. Then you could find one of the unreserved, linen-covered tables and dine on a main course from the Brothers Petronella catering crew as you tried to see your fellow diners through the elaborate centerpieces.
There, under the many banners honoring Pennzoil, the Official Sponsor of the Art Car Ball and Parade, the liberté, égalité et fraternité of past Art Car Balls had suddenly taken on a let-'em-eat-cake feel.
And among the groundlings much grumbling was heard. The Art Car Ball and Parade, in its 15th year, had seemingly gotten far from its roots. What began as a near-impromptu celebration of idiosyncrasy, what developed into a uniquely Houston affair that garnered worldwide acclaim, had apparently turned into a soulless corporate event, co-opted by Big Bidness and transformed into a patronizingly tolerated bit of Officially Condoned Wackiness for the marketing arm of the city's chamber of commerce.
The question hung heavily in the dimly lit air that night: What the hell has become of the Art Car Weekend?
It's clear the events are not what they once were. What they will become, however -- including the very real possibility that the art car phenomenon will follow in the bitter footsteps of the Westheimer Street Festival and provide dueling, confusing parades -- is very much up in the air.
Crucial to both things -- what was and what will be -- is Susanne Theis, 45, the executive director of the Orange Show Foundation. Theis has been involved from the beginning in Houston's art car movement, and she is currently shepherding the event through some shaky times that feature unprecedented staff turnover, unrest from art car artists, disputes with the powerful Houston International Festival, and ever-present money troubles.