Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Revered jazz DJ China Valles won't let a little pink slip keep him from spinning his magic over the airwaves. As long as his blood is pumping, the 74-year-old "Mahj" (short for Maharajah Purveyor of Swirls, as Duke Ellington named him) says he'll keep the jazz beat thumping in Miami. After 24 years playing classic bop, blues, and fusion overnight at WTMI-FM (91.3), Valles was told last summer that his show no longer fit the format of the newly acquired classical music station. Valles, however, was not ready to put his huge collection of vinyl and CDs away for good. "What am I going to do, go to the beach?" the veteran DJ chuckles. "Music is my love; it's my life." He describes the loss of his late-night date as "a kick in the pants," but it wasn't enough to keep him down. Valles approached stations Love 94 (WLVE-FM 93.9) and WLRN-FM (91.3) for a steady time slot but got no commitments. When WDNA music director Arturo Gomez-Cruz heard Miami's sagacious jazz messenger was looking for a job, he immediately included him in the station's eclectic round-the-clock programming. Valles won his Friday afternoon (2:00 to 6:00 p.m.) gig, which he gladly accepted without pay, last December. Using a well-established format, he kicks off each show with upbeat instrumentals before sliding into his "What's New at Two" segment, featuring the latest releases. He then mixes things up with a featured-artist set, a blues hour, and wraps with swinging tracks to keep listeners bopping into the evening. Valles began his musical career as the road manager for saxophonist Jean-Baptiste "Illinois" Jacquet in the Fifties. He's met and interviewed musical giants such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Frank Sinatra. He arrived in South Florida in 1963 to head an upstart jazz station and had been on the airwaves continuously ever since, that is until WTMI showed him the door. Still the Mahj and his devotees are thrilled to hear his show resurrected on the far left side of the radio dial. Gruff voice full of whimsy and charm, Valles is a well-worn local treasure.
Theatergoers found a lot of reasons to dislike Paul Tei this season. He played a cold-blooded child killer in New Theatre's Never the Sinner and a hot-blooded serial killer in GableStage's Popcorn. But he is so good at being bad that you can't really hold it against him. Tei is the kind of actor who looks at a role not only as an opportunity to perform but also as an opportunity to create a role. Consequently he can portray several different degenerates, and his performances never overlap. As Wayne, the gun-toting redneck in Popcorn, Tei kept us riveted to our seats -- appalled and laughing. As Richard Loeb, a wealthy young Chicago man who, along with his lover, kills a young boy on a Nietzsche-inspired whim, he was equally appalling. But Tei never let audiences simply dislike his characters. With his willingness to take risks and push the boundaries of character definition, he could make Ted Bundy funny. For example, in Never the Sinner, he dared to play this insolent, arrogant murderer as childlike and capricious -- clubbing a kid in the head one moment and going out for hot dogs the next. Tei's topnotch acting transformed these two good plays into excellent ones.
An actor's success in a dramatic role can fall into one of two categories: the ability to make the unbelievable believable, and the ability to make the believable unbelievably incredible. Bridget Connors managed to do both in her role as a young Jewish woman dying of a terminal illness. That's the believable part. Rachel's plight easily could have been a case study in Harold S. Kushner's book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. She expressed all the predictable emotions and asked all the right metaphysical questions. The not-so-believable part is the conversion experience she had, which was facilitated by her sister, a devout member of the Christian Science faith. Believable or unbelievable, Connors brought something magical to the role from the moment she stepped onstage. Her ability to be simultaneously earthy and ethereal left theatergoers feeling as though they were seeing a tragedy for the first time.
Let's give it up, finally, for the Big Dog, Joe Rose. The former Miami Dolphin wide receiver is as close to a Miami sports institution as we have at this time, at least since Dan Marino and Don Shula have retired. Hard to believe in a way. Rose hardly distinguished himself as an athlete. (His greatest claim to fame, which he'll gladly tell you about, is catching Marino's first touchdown pass.) But as a broadcaster Rose has developed into a welcome, humorous personality, the ex-jock with a soft spot for the underdog. In his appearances on WQAM, on WTVJ-TV (Channel 6), and hosting numerous charity roasts, Rose plays the doofus, willingly attracting abuse from his co-workers, especially his linemates on the First Team, WQAM's very listenable morning sports-talk show. Clearly, though, Rose is no idiot. Compared with other sports clowns, such as former Steeler QB Terry Bradshaw, we'll take the underdog every time.
With the closing of the Alliance Cinema on Lincoln Road, it looked as though this category would be consigned to the cultural graveyard. Conventional wisdom had it that nobody could withstand the gravitational pull of the multiplex. Besides that, it seemed as if an audience for art movies simply didn't exist in Miami -- or didn't exist in large-enough numbers to make financial ends meet. But that didn't deter Cesar Hernandez-Canton, Johnny Calderin, and Ray Garcia (also operators of the Absinthe House Cinematheque in Coral Gables). In January of this year they opened the 103-seat, nonprofit Mercury Theatre to high hopes if not huge crowds. Although the opening was a year later than planned, the delay actually may have worked in their favor. Their hopes of riding the entrepreneurial wave in Miami's Upper Eastside created by restaurateur Mark Soyka were enhanced by giving Soyka (the restaurant) a chance to develop a following, which it has. With Soyka (the man) as landlord, Hernandez-Canton, Calderin, and Garcia remade an old warehouse adjacent to the restaurant, featuring amenities such as tables and chairs in the lobby, twenty-foot ceilings, unusual concession delicacies, and gallery space. Soyka installed a fountain outside and added more tables and chairs. Voila! An oasis was born. Films are screened twice nightly during the week. Matinees are added on the weekends. Yes, the movies don't change all that frequently, but it sure beats the only attractions formerly available in the neighborhood: streetwalkers and strip clubs.
In 1988 Ramon Cernuda presided over an auction of paintings held at the Cuban Museum of Art and Culture. The works were created by Cuban artists who had not broken with the Castro regime. The new owner of Manuel Mendive's Pavo Real promptly stepped outside and set it ablaze in the presence of cheering protesters. (Twice the museum was severely damaged by bombs.) A year later the feds accused Cernuda of purchasing Cuban art in violation of the embargo; they raided his Brickell Avenue condo and confiscated 240 paintings. A federal judge angrily denounced the seizure and ordered the works returned. Today the backsides of those paintings display U.S. Treasury/Customs Service seals, the same ones used to label intercepted drugs. Who would have thought that eleven years later, Cernuda would be opening an art gallery specializing in Cuban art from the island, smack in the middle of Coral Gables. This past fall Cernuda Arte made its debut with an exhibition of Cuban originals by masters such as Amelia Pelaez, Wifredo Lam, and Carlos Enriquez. Currently the gallery represents six working artists. Two of them, Demi and Sinuhé Vega, are based in Miami. The others create in Cuba. They are Flora Fong, Juan Roberto Diago, Alfredo Sosabravo, and Rigoberto Pelaez. "We are very open about what we do," Cernuda says. Boy, have times changed.