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Fifth Street

September 16, 2021

In this issue: See Hear Do: Art, literature, festivals, and opera lead the way into October | Can the "new" Vickie's Diner recapture its old community vibe? | Getting personal: For local filmmaker Brandon Christensen, horror movies are a family affair


Full Scope Featuring Amanda Browder
Sept. 21
Public art workshop

The sewing circle’s social significance was renewed in the 1980s with the AIDS Memorial Quilt. During the pandemic, fiber arts got another boost, as people around the world took up everything from needlepoint to quilting. Brooklyn-based Amanda Browder (headline picture), a large-scale fabric installation artist, taps into this current by inviting members of the communities where she works into the creative process. Participating in public art can seem daunting, Browder says in an interview on her website, but everyone has fabric laying around at home that they don’t know what to do with. Her projects, which literally cover building facades with collages of locally donated cloth, connect people physically through something beautiful — and visible. In this workshop, she’ll talk about that process.

10a-12p, free, online, https://bit.ly/3jgEdE2 HK

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Empanada Loca

Through Sept. 26
Theater

Sometimes, a preview blurb just can’t out-blurb the original blurb, so let’s hand the mic to Majestic Repertory for this one: “Inspired by the legend of Sweeney Todd, Empanada Loca is contemporary Grand Guignol horror in the style of Spalding Gray.” *Nods* Yep, definitely a Majestic Repertory production! In this play by Aaron Mark, protagonist Dolores returns to her home in Washington Heights, New York, after a long prison stint to discover a once-familiar neighborhood utterly transformed by gentrification — everything, that is, except her favorite eatery, Empanada Loca. How does Dolores cope with this drastically changed world? The answer is, ahem, deliciously macabre in more ways than one.

Through Sept. 26, 8p Thu, Fri, Sat; 5p Sun, $20-$25, Majestic Repertory Theater, majesticrepertory.com

Self-guided art tour at Resorts World Las Vegas
Ongoing
Art

Now that the grand-opening clamor has died down, this is a good time to visit Resorts World for a little … quiet, reflective art experience? Sure! From timelessly cheeky Warhol screen prints to trippy sculptures such as Red Beetle by Ichwan Noor (an actual Volkswagen Beetle impossibly compressed into a neat sphere), the newly opened Resorts World has a respectable share of art experiences that, phew, aren’t merely depressing and gauche late-stage hypercapitalist flexing. (Okay, maybe a little.) Recommended: Tea Bag Art by Red Hong Yi, a 3D portrait made from 20,000 individually dyed teabags; Hippo Wild Ride by Gillie and Marc, an imposing bronze sculpture raising awareness about endangered species; and the mouthwatering ceramic series Donuts by Jaeyong Kim (right), which is exactly what it sounds like. And don’t forget the 6,000-square-foot chrome digital sphere for an obligatory selfie. After all, if you didn’t post it on social media, was it really art?

Free, Resorts World, 3000 S. Las Vegas Boulevard, more info at rwlasvegas.com/experiences/art-tour AK

Soul
Sept. 24
Movie in the Park

Is Clark County Parks and Rec luring people to get COVID vaccinations with a free showing of Soul and Hot Dog on a Stick? Why yes, they are. But if you’re already vaccinated, you can still enjoy the movie and speared food, which is gratis for the first 200 people; the COVID shot pop-up is just an extra enticement. The event happens next weekend at the Silver Bowl Park, in the district of Commissioner Jim Gibson, who urges his constituents to bring a blanket and lawn chairs to enjoy the evening outdoors. Moviegoers need to get their tickets for the combo meal in advance at Whitney Recreation Center on Boulder Highway and Missouri Avenue.

7p, free, Silver Bowl Park, 6800 E. Russell Road, 702-455-7576 HK

My Brain Has a Brain
Sept. 27-Oct. 31
Art exhibit

On his Instagram page, artist Brian Malpaso scatters a handful of striking self-descriptors throughout his bio: self-taught, sober, schizoaffective, Buddhist. They certainly illuminate his acrylic paintings, which hum with a certain restless, itchy, lucid intensity that seems to say something — say a lot of somethings, actually — about the frenzied modernity we live in. Let’s hope his show at Brick by Brick Gallery (a pop-up inside popular Mexican restaurant Frank & Fina’s Cocina) is one of many more to come by this prolific local artist.

6-9p, free, Brick by Brick Gallery inside Frank & Fina's Cocina, 4175 S. Grand Canyon Dr., brickbybrickgallery.com AK

Breakout Writer Series: Cherie Jones
Sept. 29
Literature

Have you heard the one about the lawyer who won multiple literary awards for her short stories? It’s a good one. For her first novel, she inhabits multiple, complex characters to take on classism, racism, and sexism in a Caribbean resort town. The lawyer in question is Cherie Jones, who was admitted to the Barbados Bar in 1997 and won her first short fiction prize two years later (while still practicing law). For BMI’s series on rising literary stars, Las Vegas writer Soni Brown will join Jones to discuss Jones’s first book, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, and its indictment of the patriarchy in the West Indies, their shared home.

7p, free but registration required, on Zoom, register at blackmountaininstitute.org HK

The Ghosts of Gatsby
October 1-3
Opera

Behind every acclaimed literary genius, there’s someone who has to put up with their shit. In the opera The Ghosts of Gatsby, we’re offered a glimpse into the volatile marriage of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald. (Spoiler alert: Zelda is the shit putter-upper.) On the French Riviera circa 1924, Scott obsesses over completing The Great Gatsby, struggles with his alcoholism, and seethes at Zelda’s recent infidelity. Meanwhile, locked in her bedroom by her enraged husband, Zelda confronts visions of her past and future selves as she reconsiders their entire relationship. If that sounds like the kind of emotional fireworks ripe for amplification via dramatic song, Opera Las Vegas has you covered. In this production of the award-winning 2019 work, baritone Rob McGinness, sopranos Kayla Wilkens and Athena Mertes, and mezzo-soprano Kimberly Gratland James tell a searing story about madness and marital dysfunction.

7:30p Oct. 1 and 2; 3p Oct 3, $25-$45, The Space, 3460 Cavaretta Court, thespacelv.com. AK

Summerlin Festival of Arts
Oct. 9-10
Festival

Over the years, the Summerlin Festival of Arts has matured from sleeper hit to cultural beast, and — maybe it’s me — but this season’s offerings seem to have a little extra triumphant comeback mojo, what with an expanded slate that truly offers something for everyone. In addition to artists in every medium showcasing their work, there’ll also be live art demonstrations, robot exhibitions, classic cars on display, community mascots, and, of course, a veritable platoon of balloon artists and face-painters to delight the kids. Bonus: The fall fest also coincides with The Las Vegas Famers Market at Downtown Summerlin, which will feature extended hours during festival weekend.

10a-5p, free, The Lawn at Downtown Summerlin, 1980 Festival Plaza Drive, summerlin.com AK

Haunted Harvest
Oct. 22-24, 29-31
Family festival

The Springs Preserve’s annual Haunted Harvest is more than a month away, but this wildly popular festival sells out fast. Ever-obsessed with your general happiness and well-being, Fifth Street is deploying this early-bird blurb so you can score tix now. Practically a Springs Preserve institution, Haunted Harvest offers live entertainment, great food, local vendors, themed trick-or-treat stations and, the piece de resistance, Boo!town, a ghostly adventure for all ages. 5-9p, $9 for non-members, free for members, tickets required, Springs Preserve AK

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THE NEW VICKIE'S Diner is quite a sight, decked out in pink leather booths, high seats at the countertop, an open kitchen — like the classic greasy spoons of yesteryear, despite its having opened in its current location less than two months ago. The way the diner is set up is intended to evoke a sense of nostalgia, and at the end of the day, that is the most important and resonant aspect of the place. 

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Vickie herself is always there, manning the parapets, walking the floor from one side to the other, helping with the waitstaff, talking to the kitchen. There’s a familial glow about the place. You can’t help but experience some sort of intimacy and comfort just by stepping in. To my mind, that’s what people are going to Vickie’s for. Some dishes are excellent, like the trout or the soup of the day, but over-under, Vickie’s isn’t the kind of place you go out of your way for.

When I first came to Vickie’s Diner, it was Tiffany’s Diner, and I was a spry 22-year-old, just ending one of my first long evenings of binge drinking that so satisfy the soul of Las Vegas, the kind of evenings where you never know exactly what you’re doing. Or if you’re going to get a DUI.

The thing about the spot that Tiffany’s originally occupied, a corner of Oakey and Las Vegas Boulevard, was that it always felt like a neighborhood. The Strip is divided into a set of mass factories for service industry experiences: shows, blinky lights, gambling, cocktails, good food. You can spend all your money, and you’re gonna come away with a good time. That’s what people come here for. They don’t come here for quiet, small diners in seedy parts of the city. 

But that’s what Tiffany’s was. Opened in 1955, it was a neighborhood joint. I remember Gina Quaranto taking night shifts at Tiffany’s when it started struggling, sometime around 2010, because they didn’t have enough waitstaff. She’d just be working for tips while she was running her gallery, Blackbird Studios, and raising her son. Gina was a local arts maven for the better part of a decade here in Las Vegas. It spoke to the value of what would become Vickie’s Diner that a person with an already heavy workload, who was deeply entrenched in community activities, was willing to work for pennies on nights and weekends so that it could survive a little longer.

And it did. It survived another 10 years on that corner. After it became Vickie’s Diner in 2014, it maintained its status as neighborhood hangout there on Oakey and Las Vegas Boulevard, next door to White Cross Drugs. White Cross had transformed from an actual drug store to a liquor store around the time I first started visiting Tiffany’s. The demise of Whitecross Drugs, in 2012, was the first note in what would become the swan song of Vickie’s original location in 2019. Earlier this year, developer Jonathan Kermani announced his plan to thrash the entire thing.

It felt like a tremendous communal loss when we were forced to recognize that the national gentrification monster had finally claimed one of our own. The Vickie’s-White Cross corner was beloved by community members and artists, and lived in by people that were just cusping the line of poverty, whether they were creatives or impoverished workaday families. The idea of community in Las Vegas has never been terribly robust. It’s always had its gaps. Everyone kind of ships into the Strip and then ships out.

Neighborhood joints — the kind of thing that happens frequently in small towns, and on the East and West Coasts in larger metropolized cities (Los Angeles excluded, of course), that idea of a place to eat, a place to gather, a place to seek camaraderie — isn’t that powerful in Las Vegas. We kind of stick to ourselves and go towards the people that we know, or the communities we choose. Vickie’s wasn’t that. Vickie’s was always a place where you could run into anyone, whether they were late-night carousers, weirdo artists, local malcontents, bewildered tourists, or a couple of hobos that had just managed to scrape up enough money to get a cup of coffee and a stack of pancakes. You could go in there at two o’clock in the morning, and feel something special, something real, in a city so often inclined towards the fabricated.

Vickie’s move from city to county is significant. In the name of creating industry and income, the City of Las Vegas has made many dreadful mistakes when it comes to the preservation of places that feel like home. I understand that that’s their obligation, but I have never quite understood why we saw so many small spaces, beautiful little spots, muscled out. The bright shiny newness of contemporary Main Street is one example; another is Fremont East, which underwent cosmetic surgery at the hands of Tony Hsieh and the Downtown Project. I know that these are attractive developments to suburbanites, and I understand the importance of having thriving businesses in places like Downtown Las Vegas. But in the end, the thing we’ve lost is collective memory. Las Vegas has never been very good at preserving that either. It’s sort of a double tragedy.

So, to see Vickie’s move to Commercial Center, which has been a touchstone to so many communities over the years, means something to our neighborhood and to the city as a whole. It’s a reflection of our collective identity, how we perceive ourselves. Whether it be the ice-skating rink that’s now a roller rink, the Cue Club, the Badlands Saloon, or the Center — which subsequently moved to Maryland Parkway, but was originally established in Commercial Center — it feels as though Commercial Center is turning into a repository for what we are becoming as a city and what we once were at the same time. 

It’s good to see the booths at Vickie’s packed on a Tuesday morning, full of regulars and irregulars. The suburban crowd in baseball caps and t-shirts, quietly debating the latest sporting event. Newcomers just interested in a ’50s-style diner they read about on Yelp. Elder weirdos slurping soup as they gaze lovingly at that famous painting: the one that’s a bad depiction of a woodland river with an even worse portrait of either Clint Eastwood or John Travolta painted into it ... that painting! Vickie’s is still reforming itself; they don’t have pie yet (which was always my favorite feature) and their menu is limited. But they are thriving in their new space at this time.

It will be interesting to see how well they maintain themselves in the coming years. The restaurant itself has had so many ups and downs, and as much as I love the new space and the continuation of a Las Vegas culinary tradition, I must say that some of the magic is gone. That dirty little corner on Oakey and Las Vegas Boulevard was something special for so many reasons and Vickie’s, with the currently limited hours, cuts away from that wonderful late-night dining experience I got to enjoy when I was 22 years old. Sitting there with friends, too many strong drinks in me, waiting for a burger and cup of joe. Getting into loud conversations while being side-eyed by the locals in the scant hours before dawn.

Tiffany’s, and the space it occupied in Las Vegas, are gone, lost to history, contained in broken shards of memory and the mythologies we sell each other in barrooms, bedrooms, and living rooms across the valley: “This one time at Vickie’s, I ...” Still, I'm grateful for the return of Vickie’s. Even in its cleaner, more comfortable location, I hear an echo of Tiffany’s, an unlikely reminiscence in a town so often stricken with amnesia. 

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FOR LAS VEGAS filmmaker Brandon Christensen, horror movies are more than just a marketable genre — they’re a dramatic vehicle for exploring the anxieties and dynamics of relationships. Across three feature films, Christensen has explored deeply personal themes while delivering reliable scares, leading to a partnership with popular horror streaming service Shudder. His latest film, Superhost, premiered September 2 on Shudder, and his first two films, 2017’s Still/Born and 2019’s Z, are streaming on Shudder as well.

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“I just think that horror works really well with taking something really scary and wrapping a personal metaphor in it,” Christensen says. “You can start with that emotional core and build on top of it.”

A father of three (ages 9, 6, and 2), Christensen explored anxieties of parenthood in his first two features, from a potentially possessed baby in Still/Born to a kid with a sinister imaginary friend in Z, drawing on his own experiences as well as those of family members. “Certain people that have been affected by certain things haven’t seen some of the movies,” he says carefully. Other people, though, are his close collaborators, including his wife Alissa, who came up with the initial idea for Z, and his two older kids, who starred in his quarantine-produced Scaredycats online short films.

After delving into heavy emotions in his first two films, though, Christensen wanted to make something a bit lighter and more fun. Superhost still devotes time to the relationship issues facing its central couple, but it’s primarily what Christensen calls “a roller coaster ride,” mixing horror and comedy in its story of a pair of influencers who end up at a nightmare vacation rental. “It was more about telling a tight little story and making you laugh and scream at the same time,” Christensen says.

That tight little story involves just four characters, only three of whom get substantial screen time (horror icon Barbara Crampton has a small but crucial cameo role). It takes place almost entirely in a single location, a remote house on Mt. Charleston (standing in for the movie’s Colorado setting). Osric Chau and Sara Canning play Teddy and Claire, whose online video channel featuring their reviews of vacation rentals is suffering a decline in subscribers. So there’s a lot riding on their visit to this latest property, even before Teddy adds the pressure of his secret to plan to propose to Claire on camera.

Enter Rebecca (Gracie Gillam). The property’s host is clearly unhinged, with her deranged smile and propensity for ignoring her guests’ privacy, as when she shows up while they’re sleeping to cook them breakfast. Gillam, a Disney Channel staple in productions like the Teen Beach Movie series, gives a mesmerizing performance as the homicidally perky Rebecca, who really, really wants Teddy and Claire to give her a good review. “Just the fact that she was a former Disney girl was really exciting for me,” Christensen says of Gillam, who’s been drawing extensive praise on social media. “She’d done all the press with Disney and stuff like that. She’s put on that face, that fake niceness that you have to do when you’re doing the press. I was like, ‘I want you to channel that.’”

Christensen previously worked with Canning on Z, and to cast the role of Teddy, he turned to another Las Vegas filmmaker, UNLV alum Andrea A. Walter. Christensen and Walter worked together on commercials and short films in Vegas, and Walter cast Chau as the male lead in her feature debut Empty by Design. When Walter moved to LA, she and Chau were roommates, so it was an easy connection to make. Although Christensen shot his first two films in Canada (where he’s from originally), Superhost was an entirely Las Vegas-based production, and Christensen relied on his years of local connections to put together a low-budget production in the middle of the pandemic.

“We have all been working with Brandon for years, and I think I can speak for everyone when I say he inspires us to give a little extra, to go that extra mile to try and make his projects the best we can, because we know it won’t go unnoticed or unappreciated,” says Superhost cinematographer Clayton Moore. “I’ve worked with these people that shot this film so many times that it was nice to be able to bring them in on something like this,” Christensen says of his Superhost crew. His experience making what he calls “house horror movies” helped prepare him for the slimmed-down pandemic-era production.

The house is key in a house horror movie, and for Superhost, Christensen reached out to another longtime contact, the Churko family. Father-and-son musicians Kevin and Kane Churko are mainstays of the Las Vegas music scene and the larger hard rock community (Kevin has produced albums for major artists including Ozzy Osbourne and Vegas’ Five Finger Death Punch), and they’re also fellow Canadians. When the original Superhost location fell through and Christensen was considering relocating production to Canada, the Churkos came through with their gorgeous Mt. Charleston home. “I was like, holy crap, this is a total movie house,” Christensen says. “And when you go inside and you see those big windows, you’re kind of floored by it.” (Coincidentally, the Churkos have now put the house on the market. “If you want to buy the Superhost house, you can.”)

“It’s great to see this film come to life, especially with how hard they all worked to get it going in the midst of a pandemic,” Walter says of witnessing her friends’ success with Superhost, and Christensen has support throughout the Vegas film community. Sin City Horror Fest has shown both of Christensen’s previous films, and Superhost will be playing at this year’s edition, October 6-10. Christensen is a remarkable example of a successful Vegas filmmaker, one who’s combined a commercial sensibility with genuine personal and artistic vision.

Christensen has remained based in Vegas while pursuing a career on a national scale, via his continued relationship with Shudder. He’s currently in talks to direct a Shudder-backed horror movie that he describes as a “pretty cool Final Destination campus thriller-type thing,” which would shoot in Serbia next month. “I’ve been telling them for years, ‘I want to be the Mike Flanagan for you guys,’ like Mike Flanagan is for Netflix,” he says, referring to the filmmaker behind The Haunting of Hill House and other Netflix horror productions. “One of these days, they’re going to have to take me up on it.”

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Photos and art: Amanda Browder photos by Mikayla Whitmore; Empanada Loca by Brett Loudermilk; Donuts courtesy Resorts World; Soul courtesy Disney; Brian Malpaso painting courtesy the artist; Cherie Jones courtesy the author; Ghosts of Gatsby courtesy Opera Las Vegas; Summerlin Festival of Arts courtesy Summerlin; Haunted Harvest courtesy Springs Preserve; Vickie's Diner by Maria Cavazos; Superhost courtesy Brandon Christensen

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