How the Molly Prize champions investigative reporting

Benefit for the Texas Observer salutes top national journalism.


Highlights

Revisit Austin parties for Travis Audubon, Austin Chamber Music Center, Texas Observer and Drama Desk Awards.

Victor Emanuel is the Austinite who runs one of the world’s finest nature tour operations.

The best and highest calling of journalism is investigative reporting. It’s absolutely essential to take the time, guts and resources to shine a bright light on great and systematic wrongs.

The American-Statesman does it well. For three of the past four years, it has been judged the best newspaper of it size in Texas, in large part because of our crack investigative team.

Among the other media in our state that does it well is the Texas Observer.

While the Observer and other independent media set themselves up against traditional media, such as daily newspapers, our missions are complementary, as Slate political correspondent Jamelle Bouie graciously acknowledged as part of a keynote chat during the Molly National Journalism Prize dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Bouie shared the stage with Molly Prize winner Shane Bauer and Observer publisher Michael Kanin. They tried to untangle the role of the independent media in the Trump era. Since the guests at the sold-out event — a benefit for the nonprofit Observer — leaned conspicuously leftward, almost every mention of the president was met with audible gasps or chuckles.

At the dinner, co-chairs Katie Cukerbaum and Abby Rappaport introduced Robert Frump as winner of the Bernard Rappaport Philanthropy Award, then Observer editor Forrest Wilder gave out the Molly Prizes, named of course for late firecracker Molly Ivins.

Honorable Mention: Sarah Ryley, ProPublica/New York Daily News, for reporting on how the New York Police Department uses nuisance abatement laws to close homes and businesses without due process. It was answered with significant action by City Council.

Honorable Mention: Patricia Callahan and Michael J. Berens, Chicago Tribune, for a series on abuse of people with disabilities. (The American-Statesman published a powerful report, “Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences,” on a similar subject in Texas.)

Winner: Shane Bauer, Mother Jones, who went undercover to report, “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.” The magazine spent 18 months and $350,000 getting this story to the page.

Lionizing a nature god

The large auditorium filled up quickly. True standing room only. Guests leaned forward and drank in the words.

Onstage sat their idol, Victor Emanuel, the Austinite who runs one of the world’s finest nature tour operations. He also puts together popular camps for nature-loving kids.

I missed the introductory salute from former first lady Laura Bush and I might have taken the final chair on the back row.

Slender and soft-spoken, Emanuel appeared at the UT Thompson Conference Center because of his recently published memoir, “One More Warbler” (UT Press). A tremendous storyteller, he had never before written a book, in part because his business, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, takes up so much time. So he dictated it to an amanuensis.

From the stage, he related a few birding adventures, apt for this gathering sponsored by Travis Audubon, including the time took the assistant curator of the Houston Museum of Natural History to Galveston and was about to give up on any special sightings when along a low dune line — flying behind other migrating birds — comes an eskimo curlew, a species now considered possibly extinct.

It’s kind of amazing that this is Emanuel’s first book, given his close friendships with key authors, including Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton and Roger Tory Peterson, along with Austin literary virtuosos Stephen Harrigan and Larry Wright. This night, the former interviewed Emanuel on the stage, while the latter asked adroit questions from a house mike.

Emanuel, a South Austin almost-neighbor of ours, returned to one of his favorite themes again and again: Bird lovers are transformed by the powers of observation and thus become more integrated into the natural world.

Despite Emanuel’s demurrals, he is, as Harrigan averred, one of the greatest birders in the world.

Ravishing chamber music

Listen closer. Chamber music demands it. You will be rewarded beyond measure.

I’ve been away from live chamber music for a while. I’m back. Never going away again.

The Blue Bash, which benefits the estimable Austin Chamber Music Center, took place this year at the Renaissance Austin Hotel. Not in the ballroom, but rather in the smaller space with a forest view and high, arched ceilings. A little tinny for chat over dinner, but well suited for quiet music.

About 150 enraptured guests gathered to hear Michelle Schumann, the center’s artistic director and an immaculate pianist, play the arboreal “Walderauschen” by Franz Liszt. She was joined by gifted clarinetist Håkan Rosengren for a dynamic “Fantasiestucke” by Robert Schumann.

After Robert Duke, the brainy University of Texas music professor from “Two Guys on Your Head” NPR radio show, spoke about the real merits of music education — hint: it doesn’t improve your academics as is so often claimed — Schumann and Rosengren were joined by a young clarinetist, Julius Calvert, whom the center has groomed and is headed to Indiana University. They played the frolicking Concert Piece No. 1 for Two Clarinets by Felix Mendelssohn.

It could not have been more gratifying.

I was surprised that more was not said from the stage about the upcoming Austin Chamber Music Festival, but I suppose everybody in the room already knows about it and plans to attend.

Arts ringleader retires

After more than four decades as an arts leader wearing countless hats, Paul Beutel has announced that he will retire from the Long Center for the Performing Arts on June 30.

A respected actor and singer, Beutel also reviewed movies and theater for the American-Statesman, worked as marketing director for what is now Texas Performing Arts, served as director, producer and presenter at the Paramount Theatre for almost two decades, ran Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston, and wound up his career as senior programming manager at the Long Center.

“It’s hard for me to believe that I have been working in this wonderful and crazy business for 42 years, the last eight-plus years at the Long Center,” says Beutel. “It’s even harder for me to believe that at the end of the month, I will celebrate my 67th birthday. Thus, it seems like a good time to bring the curtain down on this phase of my life and retire.”

I first spotted Beutel onstage in “Carnival” at TUTS in Houston in the early 1970s. He was already a fixture in the Austin arts scene when I arrived in 1984. He was especially good at booking shows with undeniable entertainment value and populist appeal. Beutel also played a major role in the long tenure of the “Greater Tuna” plays, for instance, and Austin Musical Theatre at the Paramount. He also nurtured the theater’s still popular summer classic movie series.

Helming the Paramount through stormy financial waters, Beutel was always known as a passionate advocate but also a straight shooter who didn’t dodge hard questions from the press.

He has held several positions at the Long Center, including interim executive director from 2010 to 2011. He was also instrumental in amplifying the center’s educational programs through events such as the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards.

“I can’t thank Paul enough for his years of service to both the Long Center and the greater performing arts field,” says the center’s director and CEO Cory Baker. “He is truly a legend and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to work alongside him in Austin. The Long Center would not be the organization it is today without his dedication, passion and remarkable instinct. We expect to still see Paul around often as he will always be a member of our family.”

Beutel’s retirement plans include, “catching up on approximately 125 DVDs and having a cocktail or two with the many friends I’ve made in this business over the years.”

Brotherhood of Barbra

What do you get as a gift for playwright Jonathan Tolins, who wrote the comic solo turn, “Buyer and Cellar,” to toast his honors at the Drama Desk Awards earlier this week?

Zach Theatre sent the star of its staging, J. Robert Moore, to New York to help surprise Tolins with as many actors as could be found who have played Alex, the show’s pivotal character, around the country.

The character staffs a shopping mall that Barbra Streisand has created in her basement to store her collections of antiques, dolls, clothing and so forth. It’s more complicated than that, but you get the picture.

Among the familiar actors who have played Alex is Michael Urie, best known for his portrayal of Marc St. James on “Ugly Betty.” Social tidbit from the awards show: Moore says Urie is amazingly warm.

“How funny to perform in a show completely alone, and then to suddenly become a part of a family of actors who have all done the same show across the country,” Moore writes. “It was thrilling for a musical theater kid like me to see some of Broadway’s legends at the awards, and to actually speak with them at the after party! We are calling our group: ‘The Brotherhood of Barbra.’ I hope she approves!”



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