Tasty Authentic Mexico and windy Ice Ball

It is good to be reminded that Authentic Mexico started out with food and the people who make it.

From the beginning, this benefit for the Hispanic Alliance has presented interior Mexican cuisine cooked up by top international chefs as well as local leaders. It has always included an informative program about the Alliance’s mission to transform lives through business mentorship, arts education and excellent resources.

Ian Gerg and Audrey Lee at Authentic Mexico for the Hispanic Alliance. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Yet as the evening expanded and moved — for one year only — to a hillside tent, it lost a little focus. Situated back on the glorious stage of the Long Center for the Performing Arts, it has regained the core qualities of intensely pleasurable rations and repartee.

Pre-dinner bocaditos came from Roberto Espinosa (TacoDeli), Kristine Kittrell (Weather Up),  Rick Lopez (La Condesa), Jeff Martinez (Alcomar) and Ryan Shields (Bullfight).

We arrived in time for the entrada, an intoxicating asado de boda from Daniel Brooks (Licha’s Cantina). I could have stopped there. But no, out came the magnificent plato fuerte from Roberto Santibañez (Fonda of New York City), three long, lean, gorgeous lamb chops with guajillo, ancho and chocolate mole served with cornbread, creamy roasted poblano peppers and fried plantains. One of the best lamb dishes I’ve ever tasted.

Luckily, party regent Monica Peraza planned time between the plato fuerte and the sweet postres from Tita Jolliffe (Tita Jolliffe Catering), Juliann Stoddart (Parkside Projects), Kevin Taylor (ATX Cocina) and Sharon Watkins (Chez Zee American Bistro).

Congrats to Trailblazer Gary Valdez. We’ll catch up with him later when we are not distracted by the cuisine and the conversation.

Ice Ball

Earlier, we told you about a gala that withstood the winds of Hurricane Harvey to raise money for cancer causes. Well, there was another: The Ice Ball for Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Central Texas.

This is, rightly, one of the highlights of the early fall season in Austin. This year, despite the weather, the event grossed $670,000 at the JW Marriott Hotel. The nonprofit’s helpers sent in reports, which we quote here.

“I was absolutely amazed by the turnout and by the enthusiastic support our Central Texas community showed at Ice Ball!” says board chairman Carlos Barbosa. “We were bracing for the rain, but what an amazing show of support we received! Huge thanks to all who came out, and to those who couldn’t make it but still found ways to support our agency!”

Jermaine Thomas and Justin Yarborough at the Ice Ball. Contributed by Chris Caselli

“Watch the match story (below),” says spokeswoman Brenda Lindfors. “It is a beautiful, powerful and moving story. And it was powerful to have Kirida and her mom, Theresa, in the room with us at the gala. Our guests formed a line to meet and talk with Kirida at the end of the night. She was – rightfully – a celebrity. She has overcome a lot and is going to do great things. Kirida’s Big Sister, Maggie, was stuck in Bastrop with the rain.”

Major Austin benefactor James Armstrong has died

Much admired Austin philanthropist James Armstrong died on Monday of natural causes. He was 85.

James Armstrong at an Umlauf Sculpture Garden event. Robert Godwin for American Statesman

A collector of art, Armstrong gave millions to the arts, social services and other causes. Among his favored beneficiaries were Zach Theatre, Austin Opera, Austin Symphony, Ballet Austin, Long Center, Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum and the Armstrong Community Music School.

“I loved James’ natural warmth, honesty and engaging charm,” said Margaret Perry, head of the Armstrong School. “His deep passion for the missions of the organizations he so generously supported was touching and inspiring. He set the standard for philanthropy in our community.”

A businessman with West Texas ties whose mother encouraged an interest in the arts, Armstrong moved easily among the various social strata of Austin and Houston. He and his husband, Larry Connelly, a retired teacher and principal, welcomed folks into their West Austin home, but they also made classy, witty, yet kind impressions on the city’s social circuit.

“James was a person of supreme grace, elegance and generosity,” said leading social advocate Carla McDonald. “A champion of so many important causes, he set the bar where giving back is concerned. There is not a person who lives in or has visited Austin who hasn’t been the beneficiary of his extraordinary generosity. Simply put, Austin wouldn’t be Austin without him and, like all who knew him, I will miss him terribly.”

Born in Fort Worth in 1932, Armstrong earned a bachelors degree from Texas Christian University and married Jane Bradford in Midland in 1954, where he was involved in the oil and gas field. There, they reared Brad, Elizabeth and Tony. All three children survive him. Armstrong and Bradford divorced in 1975.

While working in real estate and banking in Houston, he met Connelly. They lived together for 30 years and married in 2015.

In Houston, Armstrong got to know opera singer Beverly Sills and he went on to serve on the board of the New York City Opera.

“James believed so strongly in the importance of having lively arts in Austin,” said Austin Symphony music director Peter Bay. “He generously supported so many artistic organizations. He also in his quietly kind way convinced others to do so by setting an example.”

Recent Austin Opera board leader Wendi Kushner agreed.

“James was a true gentleman in every sense of that word,” Kushner said. “He was keenly aware of the transformative power of music and was a friend and supporter to so many arts organizations in Austin.  The music school that bears his name is the perfect lasting tribute to this wonderful man.”

Armstrong and Connelly recently hosted a preview of Zach’s new season at their home.

“James understood art, he lived (with) it and he celebrated artists with his support,” said Dave Steakley, artistic director at Zach. “He has been so important to the Austin arts scene and to Zach because he was often the first to support an endeavor with a major gift, and once James gave then many other civic leaders also fell in line to give. There would not be a Topfer Theatre at Zach without James and Larry.”

Armstrong also supported social service groups such as Hospice Austin, Project Transitions, AIDS Services of Austin, Center for Child Protection, Habitat for Humanity, Anti-Defamation League of Austin, the Thinkery and University of Texas College of Fine Arts.

“We rise in a sustained standing ovation for James Armstrong,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler in a tweet. “His life was a stellar performance. Our thoughts are with Larry and the family.”

Connelly threw a memorable 80th birthday bash for Armstrong at the Driskill Hotel in 2012. Texas swing musician Ray Benson sang “Happy Birthday” and Zach performers rendered standard tunes. Not many 80th birthdays end with dancing late into the night.

In fact, Armstrong, whose health had deteriorated over the years due to Parkinson’s disease, attended more than one dinner party in the past weeks because he felt on the mend.

Fellow philanthropist Richard Hartgrove on the news: “The Austin nonprofit world just lost one of its giants.”

No memorial has yet been announced.

This is a developing story; check back for more details.

Best Austin parties for late August

Despite the unbearable heat, Austin throws some pretty fine parties in late August.

2016 Texas 4000 Gala

Aug. 16: Brian Jones Classic Etiquette Dinner for Boys & Girls Clubs of the Austin Area. Four Seasons Hotel Austin.

Aug. 18: Opening of “Chicago.” City Theatre.

Aug. 19: Austin Originals Benefit Concert for Austin Child Guidance. ACL Live.

Aug. 19: An Evening with NASA Pioneers from Texas State Historical Association. Driskill Hotel.

Aug. 20: Pure Prairie League. One World Theatre.

Cynthia Lee Fontaine rides on the Oil Can Harry’s float as it makes its way through downtown in the Pride Parade on Sept. 7, 2013. Christina Burke / American-Statesman

Aug. 20: Cochon 555 US Tour. Four Seasons Hotel Austin.

Aug. 23: “An Evening with the Piano Guys.” Long Center.

Aug. 25: Texas 4000 Tribute Gala for Cancer. JW Marriott.

Aug. 26: Austin Pride Festival and Parade. Downtown Austin.

RELATED STORY: 25 years of Pride.

Aug. 26: Ice Ball for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. JW Marriott.

Aug. 26: Studio 54lift for Forklife Danceworks. 5540 N. Lamar Blvd.

Aug. 27: “Gregeriart” from Rude Mechs. Carousel Lounge.

Aug. 29: Opening of “Austin at Midcentury: Photographs of Dewey Mears.” Austin History Center

Aug. 30: Opening of Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall.” UT campus.

Aug. 30: “An Evening with Carrie Rodriguez.” Long Center.


Best Texas books: Birders alert

Texas birds, Texas musicians, Texas media stars, Texas festivals and a guide to the Texas Capitol stack up on our state shelves this week.

“Book of Texas Birds.” Gary Clark with photographs by Kathy Adams Clark. Texas A&M Press. For some of us, there are never too many Texas bird books. This one might not fit as easily into a backpack as snugly some of the more traditional guides — not to mention its weight at more than two pounds — but the clarity and beauty inside more than make up for its relative girth. It seems manufactured to last, too, another crucial argument in its favor, since it will get a lot of use. Gary Clark’s easy journalistic style — he writes a column for the Houston Chronicle — nicely matches Kathy Adam Clark’s generous images. We plan to keep it handy whenever possible.



“When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath.” Stuart Isacoff. Knopf. Curious how Van Cliburn mania comes in waves. Texans are particularly prone to flights of fancy about their native son who won the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War in 1958, then was lionized around the world, including a ticker tape parade in New York. He is now the subject of two new books, this one by piano expert Stuart Isacoff, who doesn’t stint on the socio-political context, and “Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story — How one Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War” by Nigel Cliff. Isacoff is particularly good at describing Cliburn the performer both at his peak and during his declining years. We were lucky enough to hear him several times during that autumnal period. The freshness had vanished, but never the glamour.


“It’s News to Me.” Olga Campos Benz. Self-published. One special treat that awaits those who ply Austin’s social circuit is to land at a table next to media savvy Olga Campos Benz. Not only is she a first-rate storyteller, but she’s got ripe stories to tell from her years as a top Texas broadcast journalist and afterwards, when she became one of Austin’s most visible volunteers and activists. She’s met a crazy character or two along the way. This brisk, fluent novel is informed by all that experience. Now, I can’t tell you how much of this story is based on real people — the same is true with Rob Giardinelli’s sweet and recently published society memoir, “Being in the Room” — but I can confirm some parallels between the fictional photojournalist of the novel and flesh-and-blood husband Kevin Benz. This volume confirms the instinct: If you’ve got a novel in you, please write it.

“Cornyation: San Antonio’s Outrageous Fiesta Tradition.” Amy L. Stone. Trinity University Press. Fiesta is one of those singular things that sets San Antonio almost completely apart from its sister Texas cities. One aspect of this annual holds special meaning for the state’s LGBT community. Fiesta itself goes back to the 1890s and, like Mardis Gras, its sprawling celebration is staged by not one, but dozens of local groups. That structure generated isolated pockets of social exclusion, while allowing a broader cross-section of the population to participate in novel ways. Cornyation is a drag spoof of Fiesta’s debutante Coronation of the Queen of the Alamo. It goes back at least to the early 1950s and was embraced as part of the accepted party landscape. Author Amy Stone has fun with this phenomenon, while taking it seriously on a sociological level. The pictures are out of this world!

“Legends & Lore of the Texas Capitol”

“Legends & Lore of the Texas Capitol.” Mike Cox. History Press. What would we do without Mike Cox? The journalist and author had published more than 3o books, a great many of them about Texas and its history. Here he delves into the enduring myths and verifiable facts about one the state’s most charismatic shrines, the Texas Capitol. Cox was working for our newspaper in 1983 when a fire that started in the lieutenant governor’s office nearly brought down the building. In response, our leaders lovingly restored the building and the grounds while adding a clever underground extension to alleviate horrific overcrowding in what had become a firetrap. At the same time, almost everything we assumed about the Capitol’s legacy was reexamined. Cox is very good at sorting out the legends and lore, making this an essential read for any Texas history advocate.

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Tributes rain down on outgoing UT VP Gregory Vincent

The community farewell for Gregory Vincent at the AT&T Center was something to behold.

Kim and Gregory Vincent at his Community Farewell. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Two University of Texas presidents, Gregory Fenves and Bill Powers, along with Austin Mayor Steve Adler and President and & CEO of the Austin Area Urban League, Teddy McDaniel III, were there to laud the outgoing UT vice-president for diversity and community engagement. So was Fine Arts College Dean Doug Dempster, Austin City Council Member Ora Houston, former State Rep. Wilhelmina Delco and several of my favorite judges. 

Suchitra Gururaj and Erica Saenz at Vincent Gregory Community Farewell. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

A long line of distinguished speakers lionized Vincent, who leaves to take the president’s job at his alma mater, Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York. (Take a winter coat!)

MORE: UT diversity czar Gregory Vincent leaving to lead alma mater.

Jeff Becker and Tatiana Artis at Gregory Vincent Community Farewell. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Representatives from four black alumni groups, five fraternities and sororities and five community organizations from outside UT praised his ability to bring African-American, Asian-American, Latino and LGBT groups into the heart of the university.

Among many other things, Gregory deftly handled the removal of controversial statues from the South Mall and he mended strained relationships with East Austin residents. Although we’ve socialized almost exclusively in public, he’s also been a dear friend. I’ll miss Gregory and his wife, Kim Wilson Vincent, very much.


Meanwhile we learned that, on the West Coast, the late William Charles Akins, a distinguished Austin educator after whom Akins High School is named, was given a Celestial Award of Excellence posthumously. Rev. Lee Yarbrough, pastor of Neighborhood Baptist Church, accepted the award in his behalf.
Late Austin educator Charles Akins. American-Statesman
He was in good company: Other honorees included Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, actor Lou Gossett, Jr., Olympic gold medalist Edwin Moses and civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of the slain leader Edgar Evers.
We also miss Akins, who always helped any reporter or historian who had questions about Austin at midcentury or later.

The 10 worst Austin parties of 2016

Whether it’s a backyard barbecue, a glittering gala, a sprawling music festival or an intimate dinner, our city loves a party.

And 2016 gave us plenty of golden chances to meet fellow Austinites and hear their stories.

Yet some of those parties … oy.


In my head, I can count at least 10 sour outings from 2016. (You didn’t really think I was going to name and shame, did you? You haven’t been reading this column for the past 10 or so years.)

RELATED: Sharp tips from a professional party planner.

Be of good cheer, prospective hosts, you can easily avoid that sour social aftertaste by watching out for these 10 perils. Then yours won’t be one of the 10 worst of 2017.

When in doubt, follow one rule: Be kind. Don’t waste time.

  • Program started too early. Be mindful of the web of daily activities in your guests’ lives. Example: Quite a few new social spots opened in the Domain Northside this year. Virtually every one of the opening bashes started at 6 p.m. Has nobody been on our roads at that time of day? Make it 7 p.m. and maybe we’ll call it a deal.
  • Program started too late. I kid you not, more than one host in 2016 assembled guests as early as 5 p.m., yet the main event had not begun by 9 p.m. As much as I like learning about other guests, that’s a lot of chat time to fill, or a lot of time in the lobby scrolling through emails.
  • Program started on time, but lasted way too long. Oh my. Such a widespread sin. Cut off speeches. Show one really good video instead. Take the temperature of the room. If your guests are noisy and restless, there’s a reason.
  • Live auction killed the buzz. This beast devoured some of the most fabled Austin parties in 2016. Don’t get me wrong: A good, short, lively — not necessarily loud — auction can be entertaining for the 95 percent of us not bidding. Ten, maybe 15 minutes max. Instead, why not hold a very quick “fund a cause” or, better yet, a raffle? They’re coming back.
  • Too many people honored. Look, I think it’s great that this city honors its worthy citizens. But oh my: Dozens of awards followed by dozens of acceptance speeches? Even Hollywood can’t make that work, and they’ve hired the best talent on the planet.
  • Lines too long. How often I am tempted to turn around and walk back home when I see a registration line snaking out of the lobby, down the hall and even, in one case, up a grand staircase. Buffet and bar lines are to be expected, but spread the stations out and make sure that their numbers are proportionate to the size of your crowd.
  • Too many acts. Many parties engage a warm-up band, then a late-night dance band. A few appear to invite every act in town up on the stage. We love our Austin musical greats, but this is too much. Guests start to wander off.
  • Too much internal transit time. Some hosts get creative and spread a party out over several locales. This makes for something of an adventure — and certainly we can use the exercise — but tick tock.
  • Parking snarled. This one doesn’t apply very often to me, but I’ve watched the aggravation at the curb. If everyone is required to valet, and they all leave at the same time, somebody is going to wait a very long time. (Stray note: Always tip your valet handsomely. It’s not an easy job in the best of circumstances.)
  • Segregated tables. This one applies to just a few of us. When a host segregates the press to one table, we are robbed of any opportunity to engage other guests and, presumably, tell their stories. Another waste of social time.