Santa’s Magical Kingdom: The Ultimate Light Show

For nearly three decades, Santa’s Magical Kingdom has been a top wintertime attraction in far West County. Located on 35 acres near Six Flags in Eureka, more than four million lights and dozens of animated characters dazzle and delight thousands of visitors each year.

From April to October, the property operates as Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park, a family-friendly and award-winning resort offering a “back-to-nature vacation,” with amenities including a pool, free wifi, train rides, miniature golf and a chance for kids to interact with Yogi himself.

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Scott and Kathy Jones bought Jellystone Park in 1989 and admit they knew absolutely nothing about working in the hospitality industry or running a campground. Their sole intent was to find a space large enough to provide an annual Christmas light show each season.

Scott recalled that when he was young his family would travel to downtown St. Louis each year on Thanksgiving Day to view the Christmas lights and decorated storefronts. His dream was to provide families with a similar experience in the county, but on a much grander scale. Jellystone was just the right size and the campground would produce revenue during the Spring, Summer and Fall months.

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Driving through 2.5 miles of glistening forest, visitors will encounter several light tunnels and fountains, life size cartoon characters, Elf Land, Santa’s workshop and much more. For a more adventurous experience, visitors can board the wagon at Kringle’s Store and take an open-air ride through the shimmering wonderland. Blankets are provided.

Planning for the light show each year begins in February. Kathy points out, “Everything we do is 100% designed for us,” and the design team continually strives to incorporate new ideas and technologies in their presentation. In August the decorating begins and by mid-November the show is in full operation. It takes 8-10 weeks around the clock to get everything assembled, and about the same amount of time to take it all down. Kathy discloses, “We’re lucky to get open by April 1st for campers!”

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The first year that Santa’s Magical Kingdom opened, the region experienced one of the worst ice storms on record. The hilly terrain of the park was impassable for a good chunk of their season, but they were open long enough for the attraction to become a big hit. Now, 28 years later, Kathy reports that these early visitors are now returning each year with their own children and grandchildren in tow.

On their busiest nights there are approximately 50 crew members on-site to help run the show. Kathy advises, “I think it’s honest to God passion with which this is done. This is done because we really care about doing something wholesome for families.”

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That said, the couple puts a lot of effort into serving local charities by providing contributions and offering free admission to underprivileged children and families. This year’s efforts will benefit the BackStoppers, Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis and the St. Louis Area Foodbank. As in past years, visitors who bring a toy for donation, Mondays thru Thursdays, will receive $5 off of their admission.

Santa’s Magical Kingdom is open every night through January 7, including Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Hours of operation are from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. most days, and open until 11:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

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General admission, per carload, is $22, with larger size vehicles like limos and buses costing up to $30. Private wagon rides are also available and require advance booking.

For more information, visit santasmagicalkingdom.com.

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A Jewish Joke: New Jewish Theatre presents a drama about a comedy

New Jewish Theatre presents the one man play, “A Jewish Joke” written and performed by Phil Johnson. Set in 1950’s Hollywood at the height of McCarthyism, the play focuses on a very dark time in U.S. history when many careers were ruined by friends and colleagues with just a whisper.

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Bernie Lutz is a hot-tempered comedy screenwriter and a partner in the writing team of Lutz and Frumsky. The duo write scrips for the Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye and for NBC. The play takes place at a time when Lutz and Frumsky’s new movie, “The Big Casbah,” is about to premiere and potentially give their careers a huge boost.

Bernie finds out that he and his partner, Morris Frumsky, have been placed on a “blacklist” for their ties to Communists in the movie industry. Asked to rat out Morris, his friend of 30 years, Bernie must choose between saving his career or his self-respect.

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“A Jewish Joke” runs November 29 – December 10. The New Jewish Theatre is located in the Wool Studio Theater in the Arts & Education Building of the J’s Staenberg Family Complex at 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur.

For information, visit newjewishtheatre.org.

From YouTube to Reality TV: The Many Personalities of Libbie Higgins

(WARNING – Videos in this article are rated PG-13.)

When Libbie Higgins was a little girl she dreamed of growing up to be a great comedian, but as she confesses “life got in the way.” Plagued by a terrible case of stage fright, she never dared audition for any of the high school plays that she so dearly wanted to be in. Libbie grew up, got a job and got married, and like so many dreamers often do, put her reverie on the back burner. Little did she know that fame was waiting for her in the new millennium.

Libbie, a resident of St. John, is an honest to goodness “Viral Internet Personality” with a fan base of well over 100,000 people. Her video entitled “Woman Rages Over Extra McRib” became a viral hit near the end of 2015 and, to this day, provides fodder for a lively topic of discussion on many online forums.

How does someone become a viral video sensation?

“In 2008 I started to do online broadcasting on Justin.tv.” says Libbie. “There was a chat room, and you could broadcast and people would watch. I would do a “show” and I would do different characters.” The first character to emerge on those broadcasts was Trixie Higgins, “who was essentially me with a wig on,” reveals Libbie. “That’s where I created Claudette, the neck brace lady.”

Claudette Higgins, aka @TheNeckbrace, is a church-going Southern lady who wears a padded foam cervical collar, collects disability checks and is a monster fan of the band New Kids on the Block (NKOTB). When asked how Claudette obtained her neck injury, Libbie says “Supposedly, she was riding one of those mobility scooters (at Walmart) and she hit an end cap and all of the Suave shampoo fell on her. It hurt her neck and she has a “pending lawsuit,” so she has to wear the neck brace at all times. I just love the absurdity of it. It’s so ridiculous.”

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Claudette Higgins – aka @TheNeckbrace

The rising popularity of YouTube around the same time convinced Libbie to begin posting her videos on that platform as well. It was this move that began to push Claudette into the limelight and brought her to the attention of NKOTB and their fan base, known as “The Blockheads.”

“As a 14 year old I loved them so much,” says Libbie, “and back then you couldn’t get close to them. I would have given anything just to be in the same room with them, and now I literally know them, which is nuts!”

She continues, “so, when the New Kids had their reunion in 2008-9, I got on Twitter. Celebrities were really accessible then, so they would tweet you back. Then Donnie Wahlberg had this contest to make a video to one of their songs, and I ended up winning it. I was winning the popular vote (online) up until the last couple hours, and then a ballroom dancer won, but Donnie liked my video so much that he created his own category called “Donnie’s Picks,” so that I could also be a winner.”

The video in reference is called “Dirty Dancing,” and features Claudette and her “son” Cletus re-enacting the famous dance scene from the movie of the same name. “The prize was me and some other girls got to go to Donnie Wahlberg’s house and make a video with him. Still at the time though, I had such bad anxiety that I couldn’t even really talk to him and I just wanted to go home.”

Her introduction to Wahlberg was a god-send, as he would often re-post Claudette’s videos on his personal social media account, driving other fans to view her videos. Libbie admits, “I have a lot of fans in the Blockhead Universe, so Claudette’s kind of famous in that realm.”

In 2015, another NKOTB contest brought Claudette’s talents front and center again when she served as a “ring girl” for the group’s performance in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “They had a contest for ring girls for that tour because it was a boxing theme, and I thought ‘I wanna do that!’ So I made a video of ‘I wanna be a ring girl’ and then they let me do it! I’ve discovered that if you want to do something, just put it out there and often times it will happen. They (NKOTB) have always been really good to me.”

The New Kids were not finished with Claudette however, and later in 2015 she was chosen to be a cast member on the reality TV show “Rock This Boat,” which documented the annual fan cruise held in the Caribbean by NKOTB. Although she was now a member of the cast, Libbie was still expected to pay her own way and this posed a hardship. Fans of the group, also now fans of Claudette’s videos, created a GoFundMe account where hundreds of people donated to pay for Libbie’s cruise.

“If you’ve ever wondered if a reality show is grueling? I have never worked so hard!,” confesses Libbie.

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The series prominently featured Libbie and her sister Leigh, their antics aboard ship and their interactions with the New Kids. Near the end of the cruise, Claudette was given the opportunity to do a six minute standup routine for all of the people who had donated money for her passage. The performance was a hit and Claudette was forever linked to the lore of NKOTB.

Although Claudette has garnered a lion’s share of the fame from her deluge of fans, other characters appear regularly in Libbie’s videos; Mathilde Barnstool and Holly Moore who are reporters for iReport News, Donna Carol, a licensed clinical sex therapist, Nancy Graceful and the earlier mentioned Trixie.

And then there’s Carla …

In 2012 a new service named Vine hit the internet and featured short six second videos on a loop. The allotted time was perfect for delivering one-liners in character, and this is where Libbie birthed her most famous creation to date … Carla Higgins.

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Carla is brash, has a very foul mouth, is incredibly sexual, self-confident and sports one of the largest mullets known to mankind. Claudette brought Libbie to the attention of her childhood idols and their niche fan base, but Carla became a firestorm in 2015 when she released the “McScuse Me” video. The performance is truly one of the funniest viral videos you will ever see, and at press time has in excess of 4.5 million views. What made this video even funnier is that the world at large assumed that Carla’s rant was by a real person, which propelled it into the limelight and onto the front pages of dozens of well-known news websites.

New fans began subscribing to Libbie’s social media accounts and watching her videos in droves. Since her “McScuse Me” video went viral, Carla has appeared as a guest on podcasts hosted by Jenny McCarthy (wife of New Kid Donnie Wahlberg,) and Shaquille O’Neal. Invitations continue to pour in for Carla, which is overwhelming to Libbie, who says “I have these two parallel lives going on, there’s Claudette and the New Kids, and then there’s Carla and the real world. It’s bizarre.”

Almost two years after the initial release of the “McScuse Me” video, Carla’s fame continues to rise and is evident in that at least a dozen online websites offer “McScuse Me” t-shirts for sale. Imgflip.com provides a “McScuse Me” Meme Generator, MobiRingtones.net offers a “McScuse Me” ringtone, and #cooterpunch became a popular hashtag on Twitter.

Unfortunately, Libbie does not receive a penny from any of these outlets.

Most telling of Libbie’s viral success is that the McDonald’s on Dorsett in Maryland Heights, the location of Carla’s ire in the “McScuse Me” video, confirms that they still receive more than 100 calls a day asking for “Charlene,” the catalyst of Libbie’s story. The manager of that location, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted that these calls are quite a disruption to their daily routine and advised that efforts are underway to try and trace and dissuade the callers.

Libbie travels with a bag in her car that contains her wigs and props, so that when inspiration hits she is ready to produce a new video on the spot. Free from the hassles of a traveling entourage or crew, Libbie is the sole writer, producer, director, cameraman and actor in her videos. “That’s how it is all of the time,” she says, “I’m most comfortable when I’m by myself.”

Libbie’s characters are larger than life, however the woman under the wig is somewhat reserved, introspective and incredibly modest. After her divorce four years ago, Libbie decided that it was time to finally chase her dream of pursuing a comedic career and advises “that’s when I started doing stand-up. It was like ‘I gotta do it now, it’s now or never.’”

Still plagued with self-doubt, Libbie discloses, “I have major stage fright, like bad, to the point that it makes me ill.” Luckily, all of that worry subsides the minute that her foot hits the stage. Her dream goal is to move to Los Angeles and become a full time stand-up comic.

Although stand-up is still relatively new to her, Libby has been a member of the Improv Shop since 2015. She asserts that “the Improv Shop is kind of my church, because it’s where I always end up at the end of the night, and everybody that I love is there. It’s like the most comfortable place I go.” She also concedes, “I used to prefer stand-up over improv, but now I prefer improv over stand-up, because you don’t have to prepare for improv … you just show up!”

New opportunities continue to find Libbie. In early August she opened for Tom Green at Helium Comedy Club and starred in the recently released short film “Carla and the Dolls.” Regarding the latter, she explains “it was written by a friend of mine from the Improv Shop, his name is Brandon Rice, and he always makes really weird, dark videos, so I said ‘I want to be a part of this!’”

Upon being presented with a new blonde wig from a fan, Libbie holds the wig in the air, strokes it lovingly and proclaims “Oh … my … god! This is like giving me diamonds! It’s gorgeous!” You can literally see the gears grinding away in her brain as she contemplates the new persona. “Whenever I get a wig I have to try and think, ‘What kind of person would inhabit this … what kind of accent would they have?”

The answer to this question is something only Libbie knows, and while her fans eagerly await her next creation, we also know that it won’t be long before she joins the ranks of St. Louis’ other top comedic talents, including Cedric the Entertainer, Kathleen Madigan, Redd Foxx and, perhaps one of the greatest female comedians of all time, Phyllis Diller.

No one is more shocked at these successes than Libbie herself. Humbly, she exclaims how amazing it is to have such a devoted fan base, while at the same time she realizes that “it’s ridiculous … it’s insane!”

One final note, if you ever find yourself dining at the McDonald’s on Dorsett, be sure to tell them that “Carla sent ya!” (Disclaimer – this publication does not, in any way, endorse “cooter-punching.”)

Links to Libbie Higgins’ social media pages:

This Big Band Gets Its Kicks On Route 66

One of the toughest challenges for any band is playing in unison. If one band member gets out of sync, it will throw off the entire performance. It’s not that easy to accomplish this basic stagecraft, with all the distractions like crowd noise, clinking glasses, maybe a drummer with a hangover.

If you go to a Route 66 Jazz Orchestra performance, you’re unlikely to hear a single glitch. That’s because this group, which specializes in big band, swing and jazz, puts a high premium on practice.

BillSimpsonThe Route 66 Jazz Orchestra performs eight times a year, but the nonprofit group rehearses once a week in Mehlville, from August thru June. The band spends a lot of time trying to get the songs just right; hence, the dutiful focus on practice. Their effort pays off, because the band consistently nails challenging arrangements.

They certainly don’t do it for the money, unless you consider a $46 Christmas “bonus” adequate compensation. That’s roughly the amount of the checks the orchestra’s members receive from director Bob Boedges at year-end.

“It’s to reimburse them for their gas,” Boedges said, laughing. “They give up one night a week to practice, and they need to because this music is so darn difficult.”

The Route 66 Jazz Orchestra has 22 members, including Boedges and three top notch vocalists. Many have day jobs unrelated to music, while others work as professionals in the industry, but they all have a passion for jazz. They range in age from 20 to 84.

BobBoedgesHow the band came into being is a story that began in 1969. Dr. Ron Stillwell started a house band at Meramec Community College. It was known as the Meramec Jazz Lab Band and consisted of both students and volunteer members of the community.

In 2012, the St. Louis Community College lost funding for music programs and dropped the band—on very short notice. That meant no pay for the director, no rehearsal space and no access to the college’s music library.

By this time, the band was under the direction of Boedges, who took over from previous director Bob Waggoner in 2005. The band re-formed as an independent not-for-profit organization and has emerged as one of the top big bands in the region.

Usually, at the end of a Route 66 Jazz Orchestra show, Boedges thanks the audience for coming and the orchestra for playing. He’ll say: “We do this because we love it and nobody gets paid.”

CraigToddThe sentiment is true but it’s a rehearsed shtick. The orchestra members hear these words and feign surprise and disgust, saying “WHAT—no pay!?!?” “We’re not going to play for nothing!!”

But, except for carfare, they do and the St. Louis music scene is richer for it.

The next performance of the Route 66 Jazz Orchestra is at 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 26 at the Kirkwood Park Amphitheater as part of their Summer Concert Series.

For more information visit route66jazz.com.

 

West County Spinners – Not Your Grandmother’s Square Dance Group

On the first and third Mondays of each month, the West County Spinners host an evening of Square and Round Dancing at Trinity Lutheran Church in Chesterfield. With membership currently around 100, these bi-monthly gatherings are full of activity, music, exercise, dancing and, most importantly, friendship. Continue reading “West County Spinners – Not Your Grandmother’s Square Dance Group”

Jazz On Tap With Festivals In U. City and Chesterfield

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Ptah Williams will be a featured performer at the Chesterfield Wine & Jazz Festival.

New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz music, but St. Louis had a notable jazz scene as far back as the 1920s. The St. Louis region has also produced significant jazz artists, including trumpeter Clark Terry, bandleader Lester Bowie, and of course, Miles Davis.

Jazz remains a prominent part of the St. Louis music scene. Jazz fans who live in St. Louis County have a couple of great options for free music festivals in June. They are the University City Jazz Festival on June 10 and the Chesterfield Wine & Jazz Festival on June 24.

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Rob (left) and Mike Silverman, impresarios of the U. City and Chesterfield Jazz festivals.

The Silverman brothers—Mike (keyboards) and Rob (percussion and drums)—created both the U. City and Chesterfield events. They also perform as Bach To The Future. Their band and its unique mashup of classical and jazz will perform at both festivals. They’ll be joined by the master of the electric violin, Tracy Silverman.

Mike and Rob are U. City natives and although they tour and record nationally, St. Louis County remains their home base.

The U. City Jazz Festival begins at 2 p.m. and also will feature the Demarius Hicks Quartet, Tracer, Dave Black and the STL Avant Garde Ensemble. It will take place at the southwest corner of Heman Park, in conjunction with Fair U. City.

The Chesterfield Wine & Jazz Festival will be held at the Chesterfield Amphitheater, 631 Veteran’s Place Drive from 3 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. It will feature the Wooten Brothers, Anita Jackson with keyboard master Ptah Williams and bassist Darrell Mixon, Kim Fuller & Maurice Carnes, and Bach to the Future with Tracy Silverman.

University City Jazz Festival at Heman Park
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Chesterfield Wine & Jazz Festival at Chesterfield Amphitheater
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Gypsy Music arrives in Maplewood

Born over a century ago in Belgium, a Romani gypsy named Django Reinhardt took an American art form and turned it on it’s ear. Touted as the first European jazz master, Reinhardt pioneered a blend of American jazz and gypsy campfire music, and rose to fame in pre-war Paris with his Quintette du Hot Club de France. The new style quickly jumped to U.S. shores and inspired not only American jazz musicians, but generations of country artists from Bob Wills to Chet Atkins.

Continue reading “Gypsy Music arrives in Maplewood”

Dean Christopher, A St. Louis Gem Not to be Missed – by John Hoffmann

If he could enter Mr. Peabody’s time machine and go back to 1970, Dean Christopher would be the guy sitting next to Johnny Carson instead of Rich Little – he is that good as an entertainer, comic and impersonator. Give Dean a big band and he will put on a fine show as Dean Christopher, but when Dean does his Rat and Pack and More show it is as good as any show you could hope to see in Vegas.

Dean grew up in South County, where he still lives, and went to Bayless High School. For his senior year, he transferred to Affton High School, into the class of 1971 along with actor John Goodman. They were on the same bill in the Affton Spring play of 1971.

The big difference between Dean and John Goodman (aside from million dollar salaries) is that at 64, Goodman looks like he is 64, while Dean looks like he is approaching 50.

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Dean worked his way up from being a doorman to an emcee and singer at various clubs, including The Speakeasy and the Playboy Club, after it moved from Lindell to South County.

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Some of the best fun I’ve had in St. Louis was going to Frank Pierson’s Goldenrod Showboat in the 1970s. Every performance of the same melodrama was completely different from the last, as the actors on stage joked with each other and traded barbs with the audience. Dean was on the stage at the Goldenrod from 1977 to 1979.

Dean moved to New York, where he performed in stage plays and in television soap operas including “One Life to Live,” “All my Children” and “As the World Turns.”

He married Victoria Churchill in 1980 and eventually returned to St. Louis, where Victoria is a drama teacher for the Parkway School District. Dean continued to perform, doing on-camera and voice over work in corporate videos and television commercials. Much of the institutional work dried up after the 2009 recession.

But there was still stage work. In 2012 he won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for his performance as Amos Hart in “Chicago” at the Muny.

He did not start his Rat Pack stage show until 2000. Dean has always had a talent for doing voices. He has Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. down pat. His show is titled “The Rat Pack and More,” and the “More” is my favorite part. It is fun to hear Dean sing “Beyond the Sea” as Bobby Darin, but it is a greater experience when he decides to sing it as Daffy Duck.

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One night at One 19 North in Kirkwood, Dean sang as Daffy Duck all alone because the musicians, Jim Manley and Chris Swan, were laughing so hard they had to stop playing.

Dean’s Rat Pack Show still draws audiences in with full houses at the Wildey Theater in Edwardsville and the Cultural Arts Centre in St. Peters. He used to do a shorter Rat Pack show as an opening act for the recently deceased Don Rickles, as well as on cruise ships.

Dean at Finale

Dean’s following really began to grow in St. Louis from 2005 until the close of the Finale Nightclub in Clayton in 2008. Four times a year he would put on his 70-minute Rat Pack and More show with two sold out shows on Friday and Saturday nights, but he also performed with various big bands around town.

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I really enjoy Dean Christopher most when he plays restaurants and bars. If Dean’s fans come out he will break out the comedy, especially in the second set. That is when you never know what to expect.

image8He also does a Dean Martin tribute stage show in cabaret clubs where he plays Dino with just a pianist, who plays the role of Martin’s longtime accompanist Ken Lane.

My favorite Dean Christopher performance is his Christmas Show. He often performs it as a fundraiser for his church, First Unity Church of St. Louis in South County. Recently, he has been doing the show at civic auditoriums in St. Charles County. This year it is scheduled at the Sheldon in St. Louis on Tuesday, December 5.

It is the same show every year, but I have seen it at least seven times in the last 10 years just to hear Dean do “The 12 Days of Christmas,” impersonating a different Hollywood film star from the 1960s for each day. It is probably something people 50 and older will enjoy more than younger generations, but even they will find it entertaining.

The first day of Christmas starts with John Wayne, then goes to Walter Brennan. At one point Paul Lynde appears. Dean does a bit with each actor and includes a quote from a famous movie. In the case of Paul Lynde he sings a couple of bars of a song from the movie “Bye Bye Birdie.”

The fifth day of Christmas is Kirk Douglas. Dean gives a perfect impression of Douglas from “Spartacus.” While I understand that Walter Brennan might be tough for some folks to recognize, I’m always amazed at how many folks under 50 have no idea who Kirk Douglas is – then I remember that Kirk is 100-years-old.

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I was at a nightclub a few years ago when Dean was doing the “12 Days” and came to Henry Fonda. A forty-something lady at the table next to mine said, “Who is that?” It caused me to yell over to her “that Jane Fonda’s father!,” but then I realized that Jane was already in her mid-70s.

If you watch Turner Classic Movies (TCM) at all, I would highly recommend the Dean Christopher Christmas Show.

banner_122413John Hoffmann was a disc jockey in St. Louis from 1969 to 1972.  He then took an about face and spent 30 years in public service as a policeman, detective and command officer. During that time Hoffmann also wrote articles for St. Louis and Washingtonian Magazines, worked the sports desk at the Kansas City Star and was a Washington Correspondent for several Public Safety trade magazines.  He was also a sportswriter for a chain of papers owned by the Washington Post, a baseball website and magazine. When he returned to St. Louis he was an editor for a traffic reporting service, a columnist for AOL’s Patch.com  and from 2008-2010 served as Alderman for the city of Town & Country.  Hoffmann has written hundreds of articles for regional publications, covering local government and sports. In 2012 he was awarded the prestigious “Best Newspaper Columnist” in the Riverfront Times’ annual “Best of St. Louis” awards. Hoffmann is the editor of popular “News from Snoburbia.”

Wednesday Night Jazz Jam @Nesby’s – Sunset Hills

 

You’ve made it intact through hump day at work. Looking for a little jazz to mellow out the week? Sounds like a plan. Even better, a legit jam session, expertly smoked meat, and all within the confines of St. Louis County.

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Welcome to @Nesby’s Bar & Grill. This family-owned restaurant in the heart of Sunset Hills is where you’ll find many of the region’s finest jazz musicians taking turns entertaining the crowd, themselves and each other.

Continue reading “Wednesday Night Jazz Jam @Nesby’s – Sunset Hills”

Honky-Tonkin’ at Stovall’s Grove – Wildwood

One HangingGuitarof the great musical treasures of far West County is a honky-tonk named Stovall’s Grove Rockhorse SaloonWhen you walk in the front door, you immediately feel like you have walked onto a movie set. The decor is mid-century country, complete with wagon wheel chandeliers, tables covered in blue gingham, a pool table and an adequately sized dance floor speckled with sawdust. Patrons wearing cowboy hats line the bar to watch the dancers kick up their heels. 

Continue reading “Honky-Tonkin’ at Stovall’s Grove – Wildwood”