Dropping the Ball

The Orange Show Foundation's Art Car Ball, that once wild and edgy happening atop downtown parking garages, has been relegated to memory lane. By most accounts, it died of its own success.

In planning the Art Car Weekend that begins April 26, the foundation scrapped the signature ball that drew as many as 6,000 participants. In its place will be an afternoon, picnic-style Art Car Celebration along Allen Parkway after the April 27 parade.

"We're hoping it will rekindle some of the spontaneity and fun that balls of previous years had," explains Orange Show spokeswoman Christine Jelson. "We think it will be a great public art event for Houston."

Some art car pioneers have stepped in to try to fill the void with the Artists Art Car Ball, a block party type of event on April 25. Orange Show officials applaud the effort, although it's strictly independent of the foundation.

Jelson says the Orange Show hopes the shift in plans for the Pennzoil Art Car Weekend 2002 will solve some of the problems that led to the fall of the ball (see "Divided Road," by Richard Connelly, May 24, 2001). Staging the parties atop parking garages boosted the bohemian allure, but it also brought technical and logistical challenges: Taller art cars didn't have adequate clearance, dim lighting hampered car displays, electrical outlets were limited, and prime roof space was at a premium.

The ball was born in 1991 as a major fund-raiser for the foundation. Attendance grew substantially from the initial 1,200 participants, but the net proceeds didn't -- even with tickets increasing to $40 and VIP passes to $125. Meanwhile, the limited staff and volunteers were overwhelmed in planning for an expanded event that usually took in less than $30,000 after expenses.

"We heard from artists, from attendees, from the board and staff that the event was losing its effectiveness…," Jelson says.

Coupled with those concerns were the worries of core art car enthusiasts that the event had become too commercial and regimented to suit the populist roots of the group. The final frustration was the 2001 ball, which turned into what was generally considered a well-intentioned flop inside the cavernous Reliant Astrodome.

Jelson says the foundation will redirect its fund-raising toward hawking seats in a special grandstand for the parade. And officials believe the replacement Art Car Celebration will be profitable. There will be the standard beer, wine and food booths -- as well as bands, contests, the awards ceremony, trademark Orange Show costumed skaters and the art cars on display. It runs from the end of the parade to 7 p.m.

Many of those same cars and attractions will be featured at the nonfoundation Artists Art Car Ball that cranks up the prior Thursday night, April 25. It will be held outside the club Hyperia at 2001 Commerce, in the Warehouse District on downtown's northeast fringe.

One of the organizers, Toni Silva, says the new "ball" is a natural progression back to the origins of Art Car Weekend. Veteran art car artists are planning the event. In 1989, Silva hosted an art car party outside her house -- with overflow crowds that helped convince the Orange Show to stage later balls.

Admission will be $15, with food, drinks, art cars and bands on hand, as well as various veiled mysteries: Chef Bob, for example, is on tap to emcee the Miss Fear & Loathing Contest. (For more information, visit randyvision.com/ artistsartcarball.)

"What's really groovy about it is that we can all get together, all talk together outside of the parade itself," Silva says. "It's cool that all different types of artists will be coming together."

Asked about the possibility of the new event eventually becoming mired in the same problems that plagued its predecessor, Silva isn't worried. "I don't think so, not with this group of folks," she says. "Knowing that this culture is not going to die anytime soon -- and that this is so very much 'Houston,' I have a really good feeling about it."


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