The talent level among Houston television's anchor desks has dropped precipitously in recent years, thanks to vapid newcomers and fading veterans. One longtimer has maintained his A-game, though: Channel 2's Bill Balleza. Thoroughly familiar with our town (you won't catch him mispronouncing "Kuykendahl"), Balleza also tries, as much as possible, to tone down the hype machine that is KPRC. He doesn't always succeed, but even among the whizzing "Big Story!" graphics and live (but meaningless) police chases, the ex-marine manages to maintain the utmost dignity and gravitas in today's TV-news environment.
Readers' choice: Dominique Sachse
While they definitely aren't the sexiest staff of journalists, and they don't have the eye-popping graphics and whiz-bang of the other stations, the veteran tried-and-true hands of KTRK consistently produce the best local newscasts overall. Staffed with a combination of virtual Houston landmarks that have been at the station longer than some of their competitors have been alive (Ed Brandon, Bob Allen, Doug Brown and Elma Barrera all started in the mid-'70s), along with capable newer faces, KTRK presents the news efficiently and succinctly, with no fuss and a strong local bent. The sometimes clownish antics of Don Nelson and Marvin "Slime in the Ice Machine" Zindler even have a kind of bizarre folksy charm. And rock-solid Dave Ward (who's been at the station since 1966) is the closest thing Houston has to Walter Cronkite. And that's the way it is.
Readers' choice: KPRC/Channel 2
When your own station's Web site singles out your "off-beat delivery," you know they're not talking about the recipient of a bachelor's of broadcasting degree. That's exactly what we like about the quirky Scotty Kilmer, the car-care expert who hosts the twice-weekly taped segments. But it's during his Saturday-morning live appearance answering viewer calls that the Guru of Gaskets really shines. As disembodied voices attempt to imitate the sounds of their cars' various ailments ("Scotty, it goes wrrr-wrrr-wrrr-ch-chunka chunka! What do I do?") Kilmer is fast with his simple, direct answers and explanations, all delivered with flailing hands, darting eyes, odd voice modulation and not-meant-to-be-funny pronouncements ("Check your dipstick, it might be foamy"). After he gave instructions during one recent segment about how to start a flooded car, the befuddled caller asked, "So, it has something to do with the spark plug?" That's right, lady. And bonus fashion points to Scotty for wearing the gold-stud earring.
We know, we know...This one took these same honors last year. But let's face it: It's gotten even better since then, and most of our rail stops suck. With the exception of a couple downtown, they're purely functional affairs -- if they're not slap-bang in the middle of a parking prairie like Smith Lands and Bell Street, they're facing the ass end of a park (Hermann/Rice) or a hospital (Museum District). In most of these places, you can't buy as much as a newspaper, so forget about a drink or a meal. Not so at Ensemble/HCC. There, you can shop for antiques, eat at T'afia and the Breakfast Klub (and soon enough, Tacos Au Go-Go) and drink and be merry at any of several bars, including the Continental Club and the Big Top Lounge, both of which feature excellent live bands. Or you can take in a play at the Ensemble Theatre, the city's premier African-American playhouse. Now you can buy new and used records and novelties at Sig's Lagoon too, and on weekends you can pick up an organic eggplant or two at the farmers' market. And what's more, you can do all of that without going all the way downtown.
George Russell is a colorful blend of genius and crazy. He founded his own religious group, the Universal Ethician Church, as a sanctuary for those fed up with the hypocrisy or greed they've experienced in mainstream organized religions. And he also created the state's only "green" cemetery, where folks are buried sans embalming and, preferably, sans coffin. The only coffins allowed are biodegradable; i.e., wood or cardboard. The spot is located among hundreds of acres of lush wilderness abutting Lake Livingston, a short jaunt from Huntsville. Russell owns the property, which he calls the Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral. And while a utility company up there says he's deliberately and illegally burying bodies in its right-of-way, Russell says his intentions are noble. Do yourself a favor and check out the Web site ASAP. It looks so cool, you'll actually be excited about kicking the bucket.
Tired of telling your out-of-town friends and family that Houston is an international city? Then show them on this driving tour. Drive west on Richmond from Loop 610 to Hillcroft. Hang a left and show them all the halal Chinese restaurants, Persian kebab shops, Latino hip-hop clubs, Indo-Pakistani curry houses, Arabic hookah bars, Indian sari boutiques and travel agencies prominently displaying their deals on flights to Lahore, Cairo, Mumbai, Calcutta and Delhi along Hillcroft's Asian miracle mile. Then hang a right on Bellaire and take them through that Vietnamese/Chinese strip that extends seemingly a third of the way to San Antonio. Show them the old apartment complexes that have been redone as professional buildings, the street signs in Mandarin, the dim sum palaces, the karaoke bars and pho houses without number. Chances are, you won't hear too many cowboy cracks after all that.
Readers' choice: Kemah
Local Republicans are a pretty predictable lot -- they're against everything, and they're against it loudly and insistently. Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt is right with them when it comes to being anti, whether it's light rail or the latest property-tax scheme. But instead of frothing at the mouth and trying to outshout everyone, Bettencourt takes another route: He calmly produces reams of paper factually backing up his opinions. You may not agree with those opinions, but you can discuss them with Bettencourt without feeling you've been harassed and insulted. Bettencourt isn't exactly loaded with charisma -- what tax assessor-collector is? -- but if Houston ever decided it wanted a politician who steps back from the circus atmosphere, Bettencourt would be a wise choice.
Readers' choice: Tom DeLay
The Rothko Chapel is nondenominational, and the various religious texts on the table by its door attest to that, but we can't help feeling that in there everything is Zen. (Damn, did we just paraphrase a lyric from one of the worst bands ever? Sorry, we'll try not to let it happen again.) Mark Rothko's large, dark paintings present the worshiper with a retreating void, a negative space that sucks up all the outside world's troubles. Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk, dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., provides further solace for the weary urban dweller, so long as there aren't too many stoned teenagers hanging around, staring at themselves in its reflecting pool. Hey, you can't blame them for not wanting to come down from this cloud. (Damn. Sorry.)
So you're driving along U.S. 59 when, through the clutter of billboards, you see it: a grand piano, perched precariously on a pole 108 feet above the ground. Chances are, your first thought is "Does that thing really play?" And your second thought is probably "Either way, that's pretty damn cool." Erected in 1973, when the music store was called Holcombe-Lindquist, the metal piano is 15 feet long and nine feet wide. It even has a faux keyboard, with 88 black and white keys. Store co-founder Russell Lindquist says when the Houser Neon Sign Company showed him and business partner Don Holcombe their miniature model of the sign, "It was so overwhelming that we couldn't not go along with it." The 1973 installation and 1978 improvements cost a total of $153,000. In its heyday, it revolved and was lit up with neon. But even if it doesn't revolve anymore, it's still one of the coolest signs in the city.
We're not saying that it only takes a pretty face to be a good TV reporter. We're not saying that notorious "Railcar Killer" Angel Maturino Resendiz had anything other than Cynthia Hunt's austere professionalism on his mind when he sent her exclusive jailhouse letters that were ultimately subpoenaed for his trial. We're not saying it was one of the most bizarre moments in local broadcast journalism when the former University of Alabama homecoming queen donned a fat suit to show how rudely fat shoppers -- or at least shoppers in fat suits -- are treated. What we're saying is that people might forget that behind those down-home good looks lurks an actual reporter. She tracked down Charles Barkley when he was actin' the crybaby in seclusion; that interview aired on ESPN. She broke the story of an ersatz astronaut who bluffed his way into NASA. Her interview with Andrea Yates's family and her investigation into the their preacher wound up on Good Morning America. It's about time she was recognized for her reporting skills, and not just for how oddly good she looks in a fat suit. In August, Hunt resigned from KPRC to become an "independent television and video producer," general manager Steve Wasserman told the Houston Chronicle. Cynthia, we hardly knew ye!

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