Holiday Sampler Tour Thursday is always a free day at the Museum of Fine Arts, and this evening there's a special tour to boot. Education director Beth B. Schneider will escort economically minded art fans around. Her talk and tour will cover the highlights of the permanent collection and, for fun, two exhibitions with contrasting subject matter, history and style. "Visions of Love and Life: Pre-Raphaelite Art from the Birmingham Collection" is classy, Art Appreciation 101 stuff from an esteemed Old World collection. The other highlight of the tour, "The Texas Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston: Texas Myths and Realities," is a collection of works by Texas artists with a distinct regional attitude. The Texas collection has an international reputation, although not the sort of reputation enjoyed by the Birmingham Collection. The unique merits of each group of works and their disparate reputations might be discussed on Schneider's tour. The museum urges tour guests to come early, noting that the cafe opens at 5:30 p.m. and that there's a behind-the-scenes presentation at 6:30 p.m. We suggest arriving early for an unguided tour of more Southwestern art, "Voices from the American West." 7 p.m. Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7300. Free.
Environmental illustrations In these times, San Francisco-based artist Dugald Stermer might find himself branded a pornographer -- after all, he's the artist responsible for the art in Birds & Bees: A Sexual Study. And this book on animal mating habits, with Stermer's award-winning illustrations and the word sex right in the title, is available to American schoolchildren. However, Stermer seems to feel that people (so long as they're not on talk shows) are enlightened creatures and interested in learning. Along with drawing birds and bees, Stermer is an expert at rendering rain forest creatures such as the poison frog and the scarlet ibis. He's also just completed a book, Vanishing Flora, of delicate drawings of endangered plants. Today and Saturday, he's at Moody Gardens, autographing special rain forest posters ($15) and copies of Vanishing Flora ($39.95). Stermer autographs, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; the park is open, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. 1 Hope Boulevard, Galveston, (800) 582-4673. $6.
Rotten Ralph America has a long list of beloved fictional cats -- Krazy, Felix, Sylvester, Tom, Top Cat, the orange tom of It's Like This, Cat, Morris, Garfield (yuck!), the whole Broadway pride, the longhaired cat of The Cat and the Curmudgeon, Data's cat Spot, Snowball II, Scratchy, Bill and, finally, gloriously, Rotten Ralph. Mrrrowrrr! A costumed character representing the irascible hero of Jack Gantos' books will host an "Almost New Year's" party for children, passing out cookies and hugs, and leading a "rotten, howling cat chorus of 'Auld Lang Syne.' " Children who don't know the words to "Auld Lang Syne" need not worry; few people know the words, and, anyway, the kids are only expected to howl along with Rotten Ralph. Children are encouraged to wear bells and bring noisemakers. 6:30 p.m. Barnes & Noble Vanderbilt Square, 3003 West Holcombe Boulevard, 349-0050. Free.
Kwaanza at Nia The holiday for African-Americans will be celebrated in various places around town through January 1, and one of today's get-togethers is at Nia Gallery and Bookstore. Kwanzaa gets some flack for being a made-up holiday (as if all holidays weren't made up at some point in time) and because some people think it's supposed to replace Christmas (or Hanukkah or Divali). But the celebration is pretty well established now. Many newspaper articles on the subject contain either a collection of recipes or dark warnings that Kwanzaa is becoming "too commercial," proving that as far as Sunday supplements are concerned, Kwanzaa is just another holiday. As with most popular holidays, the main focus of Kwanzaa is sitting down with family and friends and enjoying good food, such as sweet potato fritters, lemony-green curried chicken and black-eyed peas. The Nia Gallery and Bookshop celebration is at 7 p.m., 7725 West Bellfort. Celebrations also at 7 p.m., Saint Gregory the Great Church, 10500 Nold, and Mount Ararat Baptist Church, 5801 West Montgomery (the Mount Ararat event will have an African market, opening at 6 p.m.). For information on these and other Kwanzaa celebrations, call 521-0629. Free.
The Nutty Nutcracker The hard-working dancers of the Houston Ballet have performed The Nutcracker 39 times this year. Dancing The Nutcracker that often can do things to a person, bad things. To clear their heads and prepare for 1996, the company ends this year's run of the Christmas warhorse with The "Nutty" Nutcracker. Special costuming, they say, is part of the zany package. Ballet insiders also say (not that we believe them) that this crazy show is such a hoot that dead celebrities such as Elvis and Marilyn will rise from their graves to join in. More than 500,000 Houstonians have seen the Houston Ballet production of The Nutcracker, which has giant rats and a flying sleigh; be one of the few to see The "Nutty" Nutcracker, which has who knows what. What would E.T.A. Hoffman think? Tchaikovsky? The dancers just don't care. They may be willing to endure endless hours of training and rehearsal, and be willing to uphold the discipline of their art, but after a month of Nutcracker performances, something's got to give. 7:30 p.m. Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-ARTS. $10-$60.
Comedy New Year Old and new is part of the theme for this comedy double bill -- George Wallace is a seasoned veteran, old enough to have written for The Red Foxx Show, and D.L. Hughley is a relative newcomer. Both comics have impressive resumes at this point -- good TV and club gigs -- yet because of their ten-year age difference and their different styles, this showcase displays not only their talent, but also different mores. Wallace is a clean-cut, polite Southern boy who built his act before cable, when comics were either blue (like Red Foxx, who could never play the Holiday Inn in Winnetka, Illinois) or family entertainers (like Flip Wilson, who could). This is not to say that Wallace is a prude -- in fact, just after the Rodney King verdict, Wallace was daring enough to tell a club audience, "When I leave here tonight, I'm driving home as fast as I can. I'll take a whupping for a hundred million dollars. My speech might be a little slurred, but when you have money, people try to understand what you're saying." Wallace may take his audience to the edge, but he'll lead them there gently. Hughley, on the other hand, comes from a rough background; his resume suggests an association with the Bloods, and he's hungry and aggressive and his slick act includes the "n" word. Wallace sees himself as a "laugh doctor" devoted to "making people happy." Hughley says, "My goal is to be the best comic ever, that's all." These two are after the same thing, but they describe their goals differently. Enjoying comedy, old and new style, is a great way to ring in the New Year, and no one puts newsworthy events, such as all the top stories of 1995, in perspective like good comedians. 7 and 11 p.m. Houston Arena Theatre, 7324 Southwest Freeway, 629-3700. Tickets $26.50.
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Radio Music Theatre The troupe is doing something a little different for New Year's Eve. Instead of serving snacks, they're bringing in a catered meal. And instead of leaving the audience to sit and be entertained, they're rolling up the rugs and providing music for dancing. Tonight's show includes a two-act comedy of the caliber RMT fans have come to know and love, followed by live dancing from live members of the live audience. Everybody mambo! One price covers the show, the meal, champagne and "the late night rock and roll party." 8 p.m. Radio Music Theatre, 2623 Colquitt, 522-7722. $55.
Birthday of the horses On the first day of the New Year, Sam Houston Race Park will have a party for all 1,100 Thoroughbreds stabled at the track. This is because the official birthday of all Thoroughbred racehorses, no matter when they are actually born, is January 1. (One hears rumors of foals born in the last days of December who are hidden until January 1.) This is so the whole crop of a year's horses can compete in the same races. Horses old enough to race will compete in standard track events, and the party will be held for all the equines. (The Park also has a Saturday program for kids, "Everything you always wanted to know about horses ...." See Thrills, Sports for details.) Post time, 1 p.m. Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 North Sam Houston Tollway (Beltway 6 at the Fallbrook-Windfern exit, between Highway 290 and I-45), 807-RACE. $3; $1, seniors; free, children 12 and under.
Christmas tree Recycling Get rid of your old, dried-up and needle-shedding tree and get a fresh young seedling for free -- what could be easier? A commando recycling squad comprising Parks and Recreation, Solid Waste Management, Houston Lighting and Power, Nature's Way Resources and Randall's is responsible for this quick and easy tree disposal plan, and for offering free seedlings to all and sundry. There are a few rules: tree stands and tinsel must be removed before the tree is presented for recycling, and no flocked trees will be accepted. Sites all over town will be accepting trees and dispensing seedlings daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. through January 7. Consumer Recycling Center, 5815 Southwest Freeway at Westpark; Memorial Park ball fields four and five, 7300 Memorial Drive; Nature's Way, 3100 West Sam Houston Parkway North; and Waste Reduction Systems, 100 Genoa-Red Bluff Road. On the weekends, old trees can be disposed of 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday at HL&P Greenspoint Service Center, 2301 Gears Road; Nature's Way, 3100 West Sam Houston Parkway North; and Tidwell Park, 9720 Spalding. For more information, call 865-4201, 845-1111 or 645-HELP. If you want information on vacuuming pine needles from your car upholstery, you're on your own.
Rhythm Child As the geezers say, "Get your ya yas out." This dance band has the cure. Rhythm Child has no truck with soulful lyrics or the ersatz intellectual posturing of so many stupid "don't call us grunge" bands. No, this is a dance band, with bouncy funk, three percussionists and some slinky blues notes. They have a horn player! This is a band not afraid to advertise the fact that they play covers -- "Play that Funky Music" and "Low Rider," plus many current hits, are on their set list. Rhythm Child perfected their craft as the house band at the Black Cat in Austin -- they were the band there for a year -- and they've run up to Alaska, opened for Blues Traveler and played with the Reverend Horton Heat. It's a not unimpressive resume. They may not be deep, but why make a statement when you can dance? 9 p.m. The Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington, 869-