"I'm a nerd at a freak show," says "Emily." Donning a pink bob (it's a wig) and fishnet stockings for the first time in her life, she won't give me her real name for fear that I will rat her out. You see, she works for the city and her boss gave her tickets to tonight's Legendary Art Car Ball, and Emily is seriously having a moment.
She's way out of her element and doesn't want to be at what many consider the best party/event of the season, but feels obligated because she got free tickets and was worried that she would have to make an appearance. She expects her boss to be here, and must save face.
Right now, she's a bit tipsy and having trouble finding her keys. This is how my night began.
I stopped in the skywalk near where the bathrooms in Allen Center are located to check my phone messages. I was trying to step away from all the hubbub of the raucous party, but Emily only saw an aural and visual assault. She keeps telling me I can leave if I'm uncomfortable, but, to tell the truth, she tells a great story. She's not used to the melee as she works a boring desk job doing accounting work, and lives in, as she puts it, "the quiet solitude of Pearland."
Luckily, she's here with her sister and her sister's friend; unfortunately, she got separated from them when she went to the bathroom. She describes them both as "creative types" (as if it's leprosy), and keeps telling me to keep an eye out for her sister, who, mind you, has on a pair of devil horns.
Problem is, she ain't the only one.
For the uninitiated, Art Car weekend, and specifically the Art Car Ball, teeters somewhere in between the all-out artistic chaos of Burning Man and the debaucherous revelry of Mardi Gras. Basically, it can get a little crazy. Up there with Mama Ninfa Rodriguez Lorenzo and Phi Slama Jama, art cars and the ball itself are as quintessential as anything else that drips with pride and makes our precious city ours.
Produced by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art and sponsored by a "Who's Who" of Houston vendors including Saint Arnold Brewery and Katz Coffee, this truly is a gala like no other.
I can see why Emily might have been overwhelmed. Outside, plenty of beautiful cars - along with some ugly ones - are lined up to view. Inside, the costumed crowd feasts on a bevy of BBQ, bar food and boozy beverages as they take in each other's wild costumes and tonight's entertainment.
Many of tonight's guests, like Jim Moran, show up year after year. As a veteran and integral part of Houston's art and music scenes, Moran first got involved with the parade in 1987 as a disc jockey doing color commentary on KPFT, back then broadcasting it in conjunction with Rock 101 KLOL (R.I.P.). That was before he was an on-air host for Access Television (now Houston MediaSource), broadcasting the parade and footage from the Ball with Moran as interviewer. He also announced winners from stage in the early days.
"I've probably been to about 15 or so of the Balls," recalls Moran. "More of the parade. It's a very cool and extremely unique event that Houston does and, and obviously a lot of work goes into it. All for a good cause. Anything The Orange Show does...is a go-to good time."
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This year's party was spread out over two levels, thousands of square feet, and five hours, so I never saw the likes of Houston's own Artemis Pebdani (best known for her hilarious role on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) hosting the event. However, I did catch Houston electro-soul group Moji nailing their sultry version of Sia's "Chandelier" while hula-hoop dancers and tattooed ballerinas danced for onlookers.
In Houston, we love our cars. Our rappers sing their praises. Perhaps a result of urban sprawl, or the city's spot as a major hub for the oil and gas industry, we are a proud car culture like no city around us. It only makes sense that we celebrate it every year now with the Art Car Parade and Ball.
A friend once told me, "Keep Austin weird; keep Houston a secret." Well, the cat's out of the bag. Appearing on practically every major publication's Top 10 list in the last couple of years, H-Town has gone from the apathetic redheaded stepchild to the teacher's pet who continues to make the honor roll.
Ralph Ullrich has known people who have made art cars since the early '80s, some as daily drivers. The Houston man about town and former Pik-n-Pak owner fondly recalls the earlier days of the Ball being held in the Dome or at silos.
"It is a great event to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones," Ullrich says. "I often know many of the artists and musicians, and it is interesting to see the latest mobile street art. The many locations that it has been held also keeps it fresh and unique."
Happy to see it not raining, I make my way outside to the breezeway to gaze at the cars and take in some of the camaraderie. I find it ironic that fiercely independent free-jazz rockers Free Radicals are playing right next to the Fuddruckers car, but can't fault them for that.
With Nick Cooper as captain of this ship, the Radicals most certainly have played to the beat of their own drummer for years now, and always will. Tonight they're playing a rousing rendition of War's "Low Rider," as well as other extended jams and funk shuffles that make it easy for even people with two left feet to dance. That, I think, is the most refreshing thing about the Art Car Ball: it's a great equalizer.
According to Jonathan Beitler of Barrelhouse Media, about 1,800 guests attended this year's event; "we think it was the best Art Car Ball in recent years," he says. While art and commerce don't always mix, the Ball feels all-inclusive, bringing together people from all sorts of backgrounds. Even accountants from Pearland hiding out under pink wigs and fake names.
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