Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Communist Party member Emil Freed founded the Southern California Library more than 50 years ago in a desperate move to save fiery leftist writings from McCarthyism. The library's mission, to collect records of the struggles for social justice in Los Angeles, now lives on in a vast former appliance warehouse in South L.A. More than 10,000 people — students, educators, writers, artists, activists and locals — visit the library each year to peruse books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, films, photographs and recordings. Topics range from the Watts Riots and the Chicano student walkouts to police abuse and labor-movement music. You can flip through one of L.A.'s first African-American newspapers, read 1970s prison correspondence or listen to a 1968 Martin Luther King recording, all in the same room. Known as the "social justice library," the organization aims to serve its neighbors with community meeting rooms, free Wi-Fi and, most importantly, easy access to archives so that ordinary people can learn about other ordinary folk who fought for change. —Daina Beth Solomon
6120 S. Vermont Ave., Vermont-Slauson, 90044. (323) 759-6063, socallib.org.
In just two years, Christian Chavez has created an oasis of chill under the Sunset Boulevard bridge in Echo Park. Echoes Under Sunset is nothing like the Laugh Factory or the Comedy Store. No comic's friends laughing too much at his lame jokes, no two-drink minimum, no limits on obscenity or political incorrectness. Instead you'll find free entry, cheap drinks and an ethereal decor that feels like a sort of voodoo taqueria. The space used to be a Korean clothing business until Chavez rented it in 2012 and converted it, almost entirely with his own hands, into an art space. He experimented with an open-mic night, and local comics loved the intimate vibe so much that they started hanging out there all the time. Now there's an open-mic every weekday, among other high-profile comedy acts. "Comics like it because there's no rules," Chavez says. "Do whatever you want, just don't light my place on fire." —Isaac Simpson
1310 Glendale Blvd., Echo Park, 90026. (213) 446-5466, echoesundersunset.com.
If someone had told you 10 years ago that the brightest and funniest minds of our generation soon would be offering up free radio shows every week — which you could hear on your phone whenever you wanted — would you have believed him? In our opinion, the best podcast going is The Champs, hosted by Chappelle's Show co-creator Neal Brennan and comedian Moshe Kasher. The premise is a bit un-PC: The pair, who are white, interview almost exclusively black guests, drawn largely from the realms of television, movies, music and sports. But what could be an hour of face-palms almost always turns into something poignant, revealing and downright inspirational. The guests are often famous (Chris Rock, Blake Griffin, Questlove), but Brennan and Kasher frequently steal the show with their personal insights. Before your ears, Brennan comes to terms with the fact that he's an asshole, and Kasher realizes that his insane childhood has probably scarred him for life. It's as cathartic as it is funny. —Ben Westhoff
Located in an industrial area of Glassell Park, this unassuming-looking building originally housed a liquor distributor in the 1950s and '60s. It also functioned as a haberdashery, a fine-furniture distribution hub and a rental facility for production companies before becoming Keystone Art Space, which has been around for about two years. The 50,000-square-foot area is a collection of 60 rented artist studios for those working in numerous creative disciplines, from watercolorists, video-game designers and jewelers to woodworkers, welders, sculptors and collage artists. The massive building features classrooms, membership-based workshops for hobbyists, a full-scale gallery and even a decent-sized film/photography shooting space, complete with makeup and wardrobe areas. Already nearly all the workspaces are occupied, enabling the building's artists to practice, teach and exhibit their art in a communal setting. Keystone also is the headquarters of the Create L.A. nonprofit, which hosts free classes for community youth, priming the proverbial canvas for future generations of budding artists. —Tanja M. Laden
On a tree-lined hillside west of Santa Monica Airport, one resident has been dealing out of her garage — dealing art, that is. Emma Gray is a curator, editor and impresario who adores unconventional spaces, most recently Five Car Garage, an accurately named, surprisingly well-appointed structure in her alleyway. Previously belonging to a classic car aficionado, it's tricked out like a Chelsea gallery, with sealed concrete floors and wide roll-up doors. Gray doesn't so much represent artists as produce projects with them, joking, "I'm a gallery in denial, happy to provide a platform. Fuck convention." Her crew includes Hammer and Whitney Biennial artists and emerging talent, whom Gray asks for "impossible" ideas — fanciful, site-specific visions a proper gallery couldn't sell. The in-crowd has gotten with the program of afternoon receptions for shows such as David Hendren's elaborate, inconvenient mechanical sculptures, and Megan Daalder's upcoming small-audience "performance-sculpture." Address provided by appointment, and for events. —Shana Nys Dambrot
Santa Monica, 90405. (310) 497-6895, emmagrayhq.com.
We didn't know we needed one until it came here. Velveteria is a velvet-painting museum curated by Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin, who relocated from Portland, Oregon, to open their new space in Chinatown late last year. This storefront gallery displays about 500 paintings — Baldwin likes to say "about 420 wink wink" — cherry-picked from the couple's 3,000-piece collection, bringing a welcome note of eccentricity to the growing hip-ification of the neighborhood. "See the '60s on velvet: black power, JFK, Beatles, Stones, rock 'n' roll, Vietnam and tiki," screams the website, and it's all true — plus a plethora of unicorns, religious icons, Liberace and the Hall of Elvis. More than a hobby, Velveteria purports to make a serious study of the genre as interpreted around the world. Best of all is a special blacklight room, packed floor to ceiling with glowing works of art, where cushions are provided for your hanging-out pleasure, upholstered in (of course) zebra velvet. —Suzy Beal
711 New High St., Chinatown, 90012. (503) 309-9299, velveteria.com.
There's always something good playing at the Sundance Sunset Cinema, at least if you're a grown-up. Bucking the PG-13 trend that's dominating most multiplexes, the theater has a strict 21-and-older policy, with movies to match. Why the age limit? So you can bring a glass of beer or wine into the theater, rest it on the side table next to your reclining seat and enjoy your choice of flick from among five well-curated screens like a goddamned adult. Show up after 4 p.m. when the kitchen opens, and add on a made-to-order lobster roll or gourmet pizza. Like the festival that shares its name, the Sundance specializes in indie and foreign fare, so odds are you'll leave feeling smarter than when you entered (if you limit yourself to one bottle of wine per person, that is). And if you've got highbrow tastes but a low balance in your checking account, on Tuesdays tickets are just $5. —Amy Nicholson
8000 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hlywd., 90046. (323) 654-2217, sundancecinemas.com.
If you're looking for a sure-fire retread of a recent New York–anointed stage hit or a comforting reboot of a canonical classic, do not drive out to Atwater Village and lay your money down at Echo Theater Company. Producing artistic director Chris Fields and managing artistic director Drew Dalzell didn't become the city's premier producers of dark and daring new work from emerging playwrights by playing short-odds favorites. Rather, they've perfected unerring early-warning artistic radar for identifying tomorrow's Theresa Rebeck or Stephen Adly Guirgis or Suzan-Lori Parks or Will Eno before they get too agented up and unaffordable for 99-seat economies. Echo's acumen for matching state-of-the-art writing with top-of-their-game actors has already resulted in acclaimed and ballsy world premieres by Matthew Benjamin & Logan Brown, Padraic Duffy , Gary Lennon , Mickey Birnbaum and Tommy Smith. This season they're readying another new play from Smith (writer of this year's acclaimed pedophilic-romance play Firemen) as well as from Houston-based comer Miki Johnson, and are promising more. —Bill Raden
3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village, 90039. (310) 307-3753, echotheatercompany.com.
Playing Scrabble or Jenga at your local coffee shop is nothing new, but Game Häus Café is a real game changer. For a $5 cover charge (good for all day), grab a spot at one of the cozy leather couches or sit at one of the extra-long, extra-wide tables built with gamers in mind. Then choose from a huge collection of board games — 834 and growing — from Agricola to Zombicide and everything in between, all neatly arranged on Game Haüs’ custom shelving. Knowledgeable, friendly staff will help you pick out a game and even teach you how to play. A selection of themed sandwiches (like the Turkey to Ride), coffee drinks and pastries will keep you satiated. The cozy atmosphere and huge selection make this spacious, brick-walled cafe the perfect place to slaughter zombies. Or, you know, just work on your farm. —Sascha Bos
1800 S. Brand Ave. #107, Glendale, 91204. (818) 937-9061, gamehauscafe.com.
L.A. is filled with dance companies, especially contemporary dance companies, but few gain a public profile beyond the local dance community. Jacques Heim's Diavolo and Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project are two that emerged from the pack. BODYTRAFFIC is the latest contemporary dance troupe to make the move toward the big league. Founded in 2007, its emphatically all-caps name references both L.A.'s distinctive vehicular movement and dance's human motion. The planets aligned in the best way when BODYTRAFFIC artistic directors Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett persuaded New York "it" choreographer Kyle Abraham to create a new work for their young troupe, and the premiere of the resulting Kollide collided with Abraham receiving a coveted MacArthur genius grant. BODYTRAFFIC's rave reviews from The New York Times, invitations to prestigious dance festivals and selection as one of Dance Magazine's "25 to watch" have created a rising tide of well-deserved attention. —Ann Haskins
(310) 923-2766, bodytraffic.com.
Held in Hollywood Forever's gothic-gorgeous Masonic Lodge, the 16th incarnation of the on-again-off-again-since-2008 Comedy Is Dead rejoined the land of the living June 6 after a two-year hiatus. Linchpin producer/booker Samantha Varela welcomed sketch group WOMEN as regular hosts, plus a lineup featuring Maria Bamford, Matt Besser, Steve Agee and Andy Kindler. (Aug. 21's guests included Eric André, Rory Scovel, Joe Mande and founder Duncan Trussell.) "It's not haunted or ghostly, but it's almost like you can feel the power of the Masons," Varela says of the venue. "Mixed with the energy in the room from over 300 excited people, it's almost overwhelming. It's truly the best room I've ever seen for comedy. Everyone leaves feeling inspired and renewed with life ... which is ironic, since it's at a cemetery." Comedy Is Dead returns Oct. 9. —Julie Seabaugh
6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd., 90038. (323) 469-1181, hollywoodforever.com.
When it comes to outdoor amphitheaters around L.A., the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theatre get all the love. But the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre also has great music and natural beauty, with only a fraction of the hassle. It's shocking just how friendly the staff is, how easy the venue is to navigate and how quickly you can park. (It's stacked parking, so you can't leave until the show's over, but still.) The facility includes an 87-seat indoor stage, but even the main, 1,200-seat outdoor amphitheater feels intimate. The sound is first-rate, as is the stunning backdrop of trees and hillside, illuminated by colored lights. The performances tend toward world music, family-friendly festivals, and folk, with some rock and hip-hop thrown in. Good stuff but, to be honest, it doesn't really matter what's playing. The Ford is just that breathtaking. —Ben Westhoff
2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood Hills, 90068, (323) 461-3673, fordtheatres.org.