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Kaden Rogers started doing magic tricks when he was 4. Photo by Mason Callejas

Magic or movie magic, imagining or engineering, Kaden Cruz Rogers has a side business as an entertainer, even a stage name, and a fledgling career in filmmaking.

“I think the reason I like magic and filmmaking so much is because they both bring wonder.” — Kaden Rogers

He’s also a high school freshman who turned 15 in July.

As Kaden Cruz, he performs close-up magic shows for private, public and corporate gatherings. He received audition call-backs from “America’s Got Talent” and was a hair’s breadth from appearing on the show a season ago.

As Kaden Rogers, he is director in a young crew of moviemakers with a film about to screen at the inaugural Show Low International Film Festival. He is also president of the new film club at Maricopa High School. And he’s in band. And has been part of prize-winning Future City teams.

His mother calls him “crazy creative.”

“I think the reason I like magic and filmmaking so much is because they both bring wonder,” Kaden said. “They take people out of their everyday life and put them momentarily into some different reality.”

He and his family have lived in The Villages for 12 years. The family consists of parents, Charlie and Amy Rogers, who own a karate business, and two younger siblings, Gracie and Mason. Kaden’s education has come through Butterfield Elementary and Maricopa Wells Middle School.

“From a young child he loved to just take things apart and look at all the pieces inside,” Amy Rogers said. “He’s always had that engineering kind of mind. I guess we never expected it to take this film course. We really thought he’s just going down this engineer kind of path.”

“Everything that I like has to do with creating something and then showing it,” he said.

Photo by Mason Callejas

Kaden discovered his knack for creating magic after a trip to a magic shop at Disneyland when he was 4 years old. For the next four or five years, he asked for magic kits at every Christmas and birthday. The interest lapsed for a couple of years but reignited when he was 11.

“I think a 15-year-old wearing a cape and a hat doing all these hocus-pocus things is just cheesy.” — Kaden Rogers

He was on a birthday trip with his grandmother to Lake Tahoe when they stopped off in Las Vegas. They caught a magic show by Alex Ramon and bought his CD of magic tricks. For the rest of the trip, Kaden was locked into learning the new tricks and even uploaded a phone app that taught more tricks.

“And that’s all I was doing,” Kaden said. “Here’s this beautiful lake outside, and I’m inside the hotel watching magic tricks.”

Soon he was not just “doing tricks” but forming an act. He even performed for a non-family audience for the first time during that trip when his uncle, then an activities coordinator at a Lake Tahoe dude ranch, convinced him to do a magic show for the guests.

“I remember this guy in the audience,” Kaden said. “I did this rubber-band thing where the rubber band jumps on my fingers. He flipped out, like ‘Oh my gosh.’ That’s where my love of performing came, making people smile and putting them in that place of wonder.”

He’s been building the act ever since and makes a point of making it fit his personality.

“When you think of a magic trick or a magician or anything magical, you think of a top hat and a rabbit and a guy in a cape dancing around on a stage,” Kaden said. “I think a 15-year-old wearing a cape and a hat doing all these hocus-pocus things is just cheesy. Any other teenager wouldn’t do that. They wouldn’t go up on a stage and act like that. So, I do it more to my age.”

Photo by Mason Callejas

Amy Rogers said a lot of the tricks he uses have come from antique magic books, tricks he has adapted with a new spin.

“When I read a magic book, I open it up to a random page, I find a random thing on the page and I start reading it. And then I learn that little technique,” Kaden said. “And then I throw away all of the things that they’re telling me to do, and I just learn the technique that I need to know. And then I build by own thing out of that.”

That is the case with the trick he auditioned with for “America’s Got Talent.”

After seeing a series of AGT magicians doing card tricks he already knew, including season 9 winner Mat Franco, Kaden began to think he could do the same. What he thought was an off-hand comment at dinner – “Why don’t we just sign up for the show” – turned into his mother signing him up to audition in Vegas.

That was at the beginning of his eighth-grade year at Maricopa Wells Middle School. With just a few weeks to come up with a big trick for television producers, he studied what had been done before. He worked out a routine that incorporated photos of all previous contestants and the judges on a deck of cards. The center of the trick is a missing piece that ends up somewhere unexpected. His goal, he said, wasn’t to get on the show but to be able to say he tried out.

Submitted photo

He practiced the trick relentlessly, performed for customers at a Wendy’s on the way to Vegas. He met the comic magician Piff the Magic Dragon, a previous AGT contestant, after being called out of the audience to participate in Piff’s show at the Rio. Afterward Piff took Kaden and Amy to his dressing room and told him to show him the trick.

“The whole thing was just like shock. I don’t remember half of it, I was so amped up on adrenalin.” — Kaden Rogers

“So, I did the trick for him,” Kaden said. “He said ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ Told me some tips, like just be yourself. It was one of the highlights of the whole trip.”

To audition, the Rogers family was in line at 5 a.m. at the Rio. When they finally got inside, they found a giant holding room with random acts waiting “just like the TV show.” They waited about four hours before Kaden’s group number was called. With only one parent allowed going forward, Amy accompanied him to another holding room to wait another hour.

Then Kaden was ushered into a room where an AGT producer sat with a camera and camera operator behind them.

“He said, ‘Stand on the X, and you have 90 seconds and good luck.’” The producer showed little reaction during the course of Kaden’s trick.

“I finished the trick, and he just looked at me and said, ‘That was amazing. You just showed me the last 12 years of my life in a card trick.’ That, to me, was just really cool. He said, ‘Can you show it to my other producers?’”

After another hour in another holding room, and filling out more paperwork, he was asked to have his picture taken in case he was cast.

“And I said, ‘Wait, there’s a small chance you would cast me?’ The whole thing was just like shock. I don’t remember half of it, I was so amped up on adrenalin. This time there’s like five producers in a row. I did the trick for them, and they pretty much had the same reaction as the guy before: ‘Wow, this is really good. We are considering you.’”

Photo by Mason Callejas

Weeks and months went by. After the holidays, Amy Rogers was shopping when she received a call from casting producer Renee Massie. AGT wanted videos of Kaden performing and wanted him to develop bigger tricks for a large stage. He worked late to put together a documented video presentation to send in. That project kept him up until 3 a.m., and he had to get up at 5 a.m. to go to the regional Future City competition.

“I like the part of making it my own – the creative part that no one else knows about except for me.” — Kaden Rogers

Then AGT added Phoenix as a last-minute audition location. Massie called Amy at 10 a.m. the morning of those auditions and asked if Kaden could come in that afternoon to see more producers. Despite not having perfected his new tricks, he decided to give it a shot.

They were told to bypass the long line and go straight to the doors, where a man greeted them with “Are you Kaden Cruz?” Five minutes later they were standing in front of producers. Kaden said he nailed the first trick but “messed up a little bit” on the second. Though he didn’t think the producers noticed, it affected the confidence of his performance.

One of the producers told him she liked the act, but it was obvious he had been rushed in creating his tricks. She said there were five spots left and they were still “on the fence” about him. In the end, he was not selected.

“I was still really amazed that I auditioned twice in Vegas and then they called me back in Arizona,” Kaden said. “Even though I didn’t make it on the show the whole experience was crazy.”

He is considering trying out again. In the meantime, word of mouth has become Facebook bookings for schools, libraries and businesses.

“My goal isn’t to become a performer in Vegas and make millions of dollars,” he said. “My goal is to make people happy and to take people out of the world they’re sitting in.

“I like the part of making it my own – the creative part that no one else knows about except for me. All they see is this finished product, but they don’t know how many other tiny things go into it. I think that’s what I like, coming up with this crazy plan and hiding it. That’s also like directing. There’s a ton of stuff going on that you don’t see, and then you end up seeing just this flat screen. But there’s people with boom mics and lights and all this stuff happening in the background.”

Submitted photo

Kaden wasn’t exactly smitten with making videos from start. His first experience was a “silly” project in Kristin McMullin’s fifth-grade class when students had to improvise a play in front of the room and make a movie trailer on iMovie.

“I thought it was a lot of fun making it but didn’t realize what the actual outcome was,” he said.

“That is when I first saw his passion for film-making grow.” — Joe Szoltysik

In the blended learning program at MWMS called MUSD 20+1, teacher Joe Szoltysik gave Kaden and his classmates video assignments.

“What’s interesting about Kaden’s evolution into film is at the beginning of seventh grade he ‘hated making videos,’” Szoltysik said. “I distinctly remember a Language Arts assignment I assigned at the beginning of his seventh-grade year in which students made informational videos. Kaden and the Abel twins [Joseph and Thomas] worked together and produced a video that was not technically sound, and I was certainly critical of it. That is when Kaden revealed his disdain for making videos.”

The disdain did not survive long, as a later video project, The Fault, was among student projects screened at the inaugural Copa Shorts Film Fest.

“I hadn’t before that even thought about making movies at all,” Kaden said. “And we just made one in school. It didn’t compete in Copa Shorts, but they showed the movies that everyone made in the class at the film festival and when we went there, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s amazing. Keep doing this.’”

He analyzed the experience and worked out improvements in the whole process of making a successful movie. No one had real role assignments and ‘everyone was doing everything.’ He realized he did not like acting at all and wanted to just be behind the scenes and direct. For their next movie, Kaden was just the director.

“I remember him telling me ‘I think we can do a lot better next time,’ and that is when I first saw his passion for film-making grow,” Szoltysik said. “That passion grew throughout his eighth-grade year; his second film, The Inverted, was shot in various locations in Arizona, and won the student category of the 2018 Copa Shorts Film Fest. That’s when Kaden exploded onto the scene.”

Movie still from “Kindness Equals Calm”: (from left) front row – Joe Szoltysik, Aubrey Pick, Kaden Rogers and Rori Gosiak; back row – Thomas Abel, Zoie Zimpleman and Joseph Abel. (Submitted)

For the third time, Kaden and the Abel brothers collaborated on a film with classmates after the film class was able to acquire better equipment. The production of Kindness Equals Calm extended well after they finished eighth grade. The full-length film is a comedy about a group of young people on a weekend trip to Camp Shinebright. That cast includes Szoltysik and Butterfield teacher Liz Zimpleman.

“I believe these students are going to be doing some really cool things here in Maricopa, and for the rest of their lives.” — Reid Martin

“One word to describe Kaden as a young director would be ‘precise,’” Szoltysik said. “I’ve worked as an actor on Kaden’s latest feature film, and I will tell you, on set he is in charge; respectful of course, but in charge. He has the precision it takes to be a young director and make a name in a very difficult but lucrative field. Most of all, he has the work ethic it takes to be a director.  Kaden will spend hours a day working on his craft, but he is humble enough to understand that there is still much to learn.”

Kindness Equals Calm will appear multiple times in the Show Low Film Fest Oct. 11-14.

Kaden and the Abels came to MHS with the assumption there was a film club. They found that not only was there no club but there was no longer a class or program of study for video. “So, we’re like, ‘Looks like we’re going to have to make one ourselves,’” Kaden said.

He composed a lengthy email about the need for and opportunities that could arise from having a film club and sent it to all MHS staff. He received only one response, and that was from a staff member who said he couldn’t help. At that point, the boys were prepared to start a private club. But Administrative Assistant Danielle Byers spoke to Amy Rogers about the situation and was insistent on making the club happen.

Byers gave Amy a list of staff possibilities, and they decided Reid Martin was the guy. Martin, a RAM Academy teacher, emailed them back and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

The club currently has 17 members, most of them freshmen who had been involved in the 20+1 filmmaking projects at MWMS and Desert Wind Middle School.

“I have been teaching and involved in HS culture for 17 years and never seen a club so focused, energetic and excited about what they are doing,” Martin said. “Primarily freshmen, I believe these students are going to be doing some really cool things here in Maricopa, and for the rest of their lives.”

Kaden and the Abels envisioned a club that could bring together skills and talents from all other campus programs – theater and theater tech, design, computer graphics, music, even culinary. To achieve that goal, they created an ad video based on “Guardians of the Galaxy” to be played in all home rooms in hopes of recruiting more potential filmmakers.

“When he first started talking about this, he was so excited to think about all the different interests he could draw into this club and really pull a little community together to make something big,” Amy Rogers said.

At the first meeting, seven friends elected Kaden president with Joseph Abel vice president and Thomas Abel secretary.

“Kaden is doing an amazing job leading the club, learning what that role means, and is excellent at directing some really cool experiences for his peers,” Martin said.

Whether Kaden Rogers or Kaden Cruz, he continues to evolve his magic and balance his other activities and schooling while educating himself on the business end of the film festival circuit and moviemaking.

“Through these filmmaking experiences, Kaden has not only developed a passion for the filmmaking process,” Szoltysik said. “From lighting, camera angles, and editing, it’s the process that he loves and wants to share with others.

This story appears in the October issue of InMaricopa.

ONYX Dance Company in rehearsal

For the second year, the ONYX Young Choreographers Showcase will take flight in the Maricopa Performing Arts Center.

What: ONYX Young Choreographers Showcase
When: June 30, 3 p.m.
Where: Performing Arts Center, 45012 W. Honeycutt Road
How much: $7
Info: Dance@DesertSunPerfomringArts.com, katherinesherrod@yahoo.com, 520-483-8915

Started last year as part of the Maricopa Arts Council’s arts expo, the event is a performance and a contest. Choreographers in their teens and early 20s have created dances developed by the ONYX Dance Company, resident troupe of Desert Sun Performing Arts.

The showcase will feature approximately 15 dances and will start at 3 p.m. June 30.

Following the slate of performances, audience members are asked to pick their favorites. People’s Choice prizes will be awarded to the top three. First place receives $300, second place $150 and third $50.

Award funds are underwritten by Maricopa Arts Council and Desert Sun Performing Arts.

The showcase is a long-term dream of DSPA’s founder and director, Ceylan Gentilella. Herself a talented choreographer, Gentilella knows first-hand the excitement of bringing a dance creator’s personal artistic vision to life in real-time presentation before the public – definitely an acid test for the work.

“ONYX dancers and choreographers have been working hard all season to bring an amazing show to the city of Maricopa,” said Katherine Sherrod, president and co-founder of ONYX Dance Company. “We cannot wait to see you there.”

This story appears in the June issue of InMaricopa.

Adrian DeGuzman, playing Angel, rehearses with the company for the production of "Rent."

The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Rent” is coming to Maricopa in June.

What: “Rent”
Who: Maricopa Community Theatre
When: June 6-8, 7 p.m., June 9, 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.
Where: Leading Edge Academy, 18700 N. Porter Road
How much: $10/advance; $15/door
Info: MaricopaCommunityTheatre.org

Maricopa Community Theatre will present the rock musical in five performances June 6-9 at Leading Edge Academy. Director Carrie Vargas said it took two months to get royalties for the show. MCT is an AriZoni Theatre.

Vargas calls “Rent” a musical about “expressions of love,” whether love for others or self-love. She also said it will be a “unique interpretation.”

“Rent” was first performed in 1996, set during the AIDS epidemic of the late ‘80s in New York’s East Village. Inspired by Puccini’s “La Bohème,” it features characters trying to get ahead while dealing with poverty, drugs, loss and illness.

Randy Rice, who plays Mark, the narrator and a pivotal character in the ensemble, noted “Rent” was a “shocking and provocative show when it premiered. I don’t think you should go to anything that’s just comfortable.”

Like MCT’s “Sweeney Todd” before it, “Rent” is not kid-friendly and has adult content and language that Vargas describes as PG-13 or stronger. She said Maricopa has grown enough and evolved enough to be prepared for “Rent.”

“I liked how divine this show is,” said Adrian DeGuzman, an ASU student who plays eccentric Angel, a cross-dressing performer dying from AIDS who “brings everyone together.”

Maria Santillan plays Mimi in “Rent.”

Gay, lesbian or straight, many of the characters are artists in one medium or another. Several are HIV-positive but pushing forward, a fact that has continuing implications in the plot.

Jerry Allen, a familiar face for MCT, plays Roger, a songwriter whose girlfriend has died and left him in deep depression.

“I’m more like Roger than I think,” Allen said, adding that is what makes the character such a struggle for him. “The music is what pulled me in.”

The score earned one of the four Tony Awards given to the original Broadway version of the musical.

Brittany Randolph, also a returning MCT player, is Joanne, a lesbian and a confident lawyer with connections.

“I was extremely excited when I heard we were going to do ‘Rent,’” Randolph said. “I loved the story and the fact it is focused on love.”

For those who have only seen the film version, Randolph warns the stage version is different.

“It’s very human,” said Maricopa High School graduate Maria Santillian, who plays the complicated addict Mimi. “And it’s very real. It has a lot of awareness of things that are real.”

Opening night for the Maricopa High School Theatre Company’s spring musical, “The Baker’s Wife,” was Thursday. Met with a warm reception, the production features an entertaining if challenging score for a talented cast. The show stars Antonio Gonzales as the baker and Kjirsten Lemon as his wife, who becomes the center of a village scandal. Both give touching performances amid a town of comically feuding neighbors who will do just about anything to get their daily bread – even learn to get along. In support are Britney Montgomery, Collin Martin, Brandon Korittky, Carlos Aguilar, Douglas Moulton and many more. Performances continue Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. with a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for students.

Photo by Michelle Chance

Tejano music fans danced for hours Saturday night during a Latin music showcase at UltraStar Multi-tainment amphitheater. Grupo El Regreso, from Phoenix, opened the show for Texas-based bands Da Krazy Pimpz and Las Fenix.

Antonio Gonzalez and Kjirsten Lemon star in "The Baker's Wife" for MHS Theatre Company. Photo by Mason Callejas


After years of staging musicals that have had their runs on Broadway and are ingrained in the musical-theater psyche, Maricopa High School Theatre Company is tackling a far less known show for its spring musical.

What: “The Baker’s Wife”
Who: MHS Theatre Company
When: April 19-21, 7 p.m., April 21, 2 p.m.
Where: Performing Arts Center, 45012 W. Honeycutt Ave.
How much: $7 adults; $5 students

“The Baker’s Wife” by Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein has a long history that includes a brief run on London’s West End but never a production on Broadway. Through regional and international productions, it was changed over the years and gained a cult following.

“I thought it was just going to be real cute,” said junior Antonio Gonzales, who plays Aimable the baker. “It’s not a very well-known show. Before we had actually started the process, I looked into it, and fell in love with it. It was a really good show.”

Set in provincial France, the story opens when a baker finally arrives in a squabbling village long without a bread baker. While welcoming the baker, gossipy villagers take note of his much-younger wife Genevieve. A handsome, young man pursues Genevieve, who resists his advances – for a while.

“She’s challenging, because she does something that I personally would not ever do,” said junior Kjirsten Lemon, who plays Genevieve. “I have to play her like to me that’s what’s right.”

The humble baker’s humble response to what befalls him is censure to the villagers, who take another look at their own relationships.

“It’s a sweet story,” said teacher Cynthia Calhoun, who is directing the musical, apparently her last for MHS. She has submitted her resignation effective at the end of the school year.

Teacher Cynthia Calhoun directs the students through a rehearsal. Hers is among staff resignations that go before the MUSD Governing Board this week. Photo by Mason Callejas

Calhoun said though the show is not well-known, its creators are. Schwartz wrote a collection of hits, from “Pippin” to “Wicked,” and Stein is revered in theater circles for “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“When you listen to the first song, Chanson, it’s so beautiful, especially with Britney [Montgomery] singing it,” Lemon said. “Right when I heard that song, I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be a great musical.’”


Cast List
Aimable … Antonio Gonzales
Genevieve … Kjirsten Lemon
Denise … Britney Montgomery
Claude … Carlos Aguilar
Martine (teacher) … Stirling Luckey
Therese … Aidyn Curtis
Pierre … Jae Luna
Doumergue … Genevieve Burno
Antoine … Kobe Hinton
Barnaby … Logan Spaulding
Hortense … Taryn Story
le Cure (Priest) … Douglas Moulton
Marquis … Collin Martin
Dominique … Brandon Korittky
Philippe … Emma Schrader
Inez … Ivie Keene
Simone … Chaienne Zoller
Nicole … Alexia Esquivel

The Villagers … Emmeline Boothe, Mary Brokenshire, Keara Burke, Aleyna Call, Isabella Chitwood, Zephanie Coleman, Morgan Cutrara, Astraya Ellyson, Autumn Fausz, Fallon Fruchey, Angelina George, Katie Gilmore, Emily Goncalves, Wynter Grissom, Hailey Gross, Tamara Hanania, Katie Hanks, Azeri Hanson, Makayla Horn, Scotland JanFrancisco, Princess Jimenez, Ashlyn Kelley, Rachel Knight, Dakota Larson, Haley Lemon, Isabelle Lopez, Aubrey Maas, Kylie Nolan, Michael O’Dell, Andrea Ortiz, Caterina Rizzi, Chloe Seekings, Heidi Smith, Katelyn Stroschein, Francis Trast, Alex-Ann Velasco

This story appears in the April edition of InMaricopa.

Photo by Michelle Chance

Live music boomed under the blazing sun at the Maricopa Music Fest last weekend. It’s the second event hosted by Founder Chrystal Allen-O’Jon after the inaugural fest four years ago. The lineup spanned genres from indie, rock and reggae to rap. Entertainment ran from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Copper Sky.

See photos at https://www.inmaricopa.com/photogallery/gallery4/ 


Four years after its debut, Maricopa Music Festival returns on April 7.

What: Maricopa Music Festival
When: April 7, 1-10 p.m.
Where: Copper Sky Regional Park, 44345 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
How much: $20/adults; free to children under 12 and military veterans
Info: MaricopaMusicFest.us

The event, scheduled from 1 to 10 p.m. (and maybe beyond) at Copper Sky Regional Park, spotlights indie music, which itself stretches genres. Founder Chrystal Allen-O’Jon said more than 20 music acts are scheduled as well as other entertainment.

From pop and hip hop to reggae and a Jimi Hendrix tribute, performers are expected to bring the diversity to a concert organizers want to make an annual event.

“There will be two stages with three screens and a smoke machine,” she said. “Presentation is super important.”

The acts will have a distinct local flavor. Many are from Arizona with others coming from California, Florida and even one from Sweden. Allen-O’Jon said the musicians have been vetted to ensure quality.

As the music is playing, there will be an art walk, science walk, a glow-in-the-dark face painting contest, festival-wear contest, food and product vendors and a beer garden.

“Things will be going on all the time,” Allen-O’Jon said. “We would like to build it to be more like Coachella,” referring to a music-and-arts festival in California. She would like to draw around 1,500 music lovers.

The previous event four years ago was free, with organizers and sponsors footing the substantial bill. This time, there will be an admission fee.

At the gate, attendees pay $20, or they can purchase in advance for $15 from EventBrite. VIP tickets, which include dinner, are $45 in advance and $50 at the gate. Children under 12 and military veterans get in free. The first 20 low-riders who register their cars get two free tickets.

Charging stations will be available for electronic devices. Maricopa Police Department and private security are scheduled to be on site to maintain a safe atmosphere, Allen-O’Jon said.

For those wishing to indulge in True Grit Tavern’s beer garden, organizers have a Lyft code for a safe ride home. They have also partnered with a hotel for discount prices.

“We’re going to be honoring Bikers Against Child Abuse,” Allen-O’Jon said. “They’ll be our honored guests, and all the bikers can attend free.”


Scheduled Performers at Maricopa Music Festival

Jimi Hendrix Review By Derrick Cummings
Lighthouse Band AZ
The Sink or Swim Band
Somewhat Damaged
Pachamama LA
John Kelley
Eric Seats & The 333’s
Born Divine
Xavier Keyz
Young Energy
Taylor McLeod
Ida Divine
Elizabeth Pope
Tanta T
Posterwall Band
The PA System
Dance Glam
A-Mac & The Height
Maricopa Brothers Taekwondo

MOBILE USERS GET NEWS FIRST. Download InMaricopa for Apple and Android devices.


They had so much fun last year, they are doing it again.

For a chance to win tickets to Copa Shorts Film Fest, see InMaricopa on Facebook.

The second Copa Shorts Film Fest is set for Feb. 16-18 at UltraStar Multi-tainment Center. The 68 films to be screened range from middle-school projects to a film short-listed for the Academy Awards. They also range in length from 2 minutes to the limit of 20 minutes.

Films are divided into film blocks, each block totaling less than two hours in film time but often ended with Q&A’s with the filmmakers. Each block includes seven to nine films.

Organizers have picked up more sponsors, contributing partners and resources since last year. Showcase film blocks are Native American, military veteran, college and noncompeting high school/middle school films.

In the Native American showcase is Lost Face, an Australian-produced film based on a Jack London story. It is short-listed for the Oscars in the short-film category.

“It is so well done,” festival Executive Director Shelley Gillespie said. “And it builds to a tension level. There’s an amount of violence, so it’s not one small children should see.”

She said she intends to create a 15-second moment in the block to warn attendees of the content and allow them time to remove kids from the audience if they choose. Most films with extreme violence or other adult content are in the “After Hours” film block late Saturday.

Gillespie’s personal favorite in the festival is in the College Showcase. The Chocolate Soldier is set in World War II, placing a young refugee in the path of the enemy.

Film block themes are “Human… Nature,” “After Hours,” “People and Challenges” and “High and Low Tech.” The script table reads are Sunday afternoon and will involve four screenplays and local actors.

The Native American Showcase includes the work of children, specifically the Ak-Chin Movie Club. Most of those filmmakers are between 8 and 14 years old. Their four short films are not competing in the festival and will be screened but not judged.

Jeffrey Stoffer of the Ak-Chin Library said Gillespie attended the club’s own festival and picked out projects they would like to see in Copa Shorts. One of those films, Ak-Chin Rez Dogs, is a public service announcement video that won the 2017 Tribal/EPA Region 9 Conference Youth Video Contest.

Being able to see their work screened among professional films in a festival setting is a big boost.

“It gives them the self-confidence that lets them know they can do anything they want to,” Stoffer said.

The movie club, 30 members strong with a long waiting list, uses the library’s teen room, which has three green-screened walls and movie-production computer programs. They script, shoot and edit with help from Stoffer, Cecily Peters and Sandiin Mitchell. Peters, for example, may polish their editing and then explain exactly what she did and why.

The program provides the resources for the “generation of makers and creators” who might not have the equipment or a script or even an idea for a script but want to create a story. Stoffer said the whole purpose is to “help build their creativity and confidence.”

Local middle school students are also returning with new films for the festival, having learned what they needed to do to improve from last year’s submissions. There are four middle school films and nine high school films, including one from the Philippines, in the showcase.

“I really hope we get a good audience for these because they’re really fun and imaginative,” Gillespie said.

Jason Stahl, a teacher in San Tan Valley, plans to bring busloads of students both days of the festival. That includes attending the free workshops. Stahl is on the festival’s advisory board.

“I’m thrilled because we’ll have all those kids,” Gillespie said. “They want to see their friends.”

The three workshops Saturday morning in Elements Event Center are presented by entertainment attorney Stephen Nebgen, cinematographer Steve Wargo and Arizona Office of Film & Digital Media Director Matthew Earl Jones. Nebgen will present “Film Funding: Show Me the Money!” Wargo will present “Drones, Moviemaking and the FAA Rules. Rules. Rules.” Jones’s topic is “Filming in Arizona: What Arizona Can Do for You.”

A film block showcase drawing notice is for films created by military veterans. The block includes seven films on Saturday afternoon. Military veterans can attend that film block for $3, thanks to two sponsors. The veteran and senior/student rate for all other film blocks is $10. General admission for each block is $12.

A day pass is $70 for Saturday and $75 for Sunday. Parties at the beginning and end of the festival are $30 each. The Opening Night VIP Party will feature entertainment by Brian Hammill & Native Spirit. The Closing Night Wrap Party, which includes awards, features acclaimed musician Arvel Bird.

In the spirit of full disclosure, InMaricopa multimedia journalist Mason Callejas’ documentary Still Standing: The Copa Central Story was accepted into the festival, and InMaricopa client loyalty coordinator Michelle Sorensen was a film reviewer for Copa Shorts Film Fest.


This story appears in the February issue of InMaricopa.

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Maricopa Community Youth Theatre's Mulan Jr. Photo by Michelle Chance
The Maricopa Community Youth Theatre transported its audience to ancient China Friday evening during their performance of Disney’s “Mulan Jr.”

Directed by Matthew Ortega, the entire cast donned colorful costumes while performing songs made popular by the Disney original animated film.

Grace Blakely played lead as the tradition-forsaking “Mulan,” who dresses as a man to fight in the Chinese Army in her father’s place.

Ashlee Adams delighted as Mulan’s fiery sidekick “Mushu” the dragon, and Isaiah Evans played strong Chinese Army Capt. Shang.

Mulan: Grace Blakely
Shang: Isaiah Evans
Mushu: Ashlee Adams
Shan Yu: Yazzmine Regalado
Fa Li: Diamond Morgan
Fa Zhou: Joe Rice
Grandmother Fa: Karah Richardson
Laozi: Sicayda Shattuck
Yun: Jasmine Yubeta
Zhang: Brenna Fitzpatrick
Lin: Christina Surber
Hong: Trinity Kenny
Quian Po: Kekoa Kaltved
Lin/Young Yi: Spencer Mattox
Yao/Young Xiao: Moshe Evans
Chi Fu: Aubrey Maas
Chen: Natalie Denboer
Liu: Dierdre Browne
Magyar: Alli Rice
Subar-Tu/Matchmaker: Sara Bailin
Emperor: Justin Maas
Cheongsam Salesperson: Liliani Mejia
Maidens: Sophia Regalado, Siya Tuscher, Meeya Cornwell, Juliette Mattox
Director: Paul Matthew Ortega
Music Director: Carrie Vargas
Assistant Directors: Kaytlin Rain Bovey, Rachele Maas
Choreographers: Auna Littlejohn, Paul Matthew Ortega, Sam Sawade
Stage Manager: Mario Bandin
Producer: Carrie Vargas
Props: Rachele Maas
Fight Consultants and Choreographers: Terry and Cherish Forbes
Fight Captain: Grace Blakely
Sound and Lighting Operator: David Vargas
Costumes: Parents of cast and crew


Michael Hunt of Maricopa entertains at Spice of Life. Photo by Mason Callejas

The annual Spice of Life Senior Variety Show saw senior citizens strutting their stuff at the Maricopa Performing Arts Center. The show brought local and out-of-town talent to the stage, entertaining with singing, dancing, comedy and more.

Spice of Life organizer Helen Brown of Maricopa. Photo by Mason Callejas

The Maricopa High School Performing Arts Center will host the third annual Spice of Life Senior Variety Show April 8, bringing to stage talented, golden-aged performers from all walks of life.

What: Spice of Life Senior Variety Show
When: April 8, 6 p.m.
Where: Maricopa High School Performing Arts Center, 45012 W. Honeycutt Ave.
How much: $15

They will demonstrate various talents from dancing and singing to comedy and magic.

Helen Brown, lead organizer for the event, hopes the show will provide a seasoned sampling of diverse cultures and musical influences while providing good, old-fashioned entertainment.

She had the idea to bring the show to Maricopa four years ago, after attending a friend’s Spice of Life performance at the Chandler Performing Arts Center. After speaking with that event’s organizers, Brown successfully convinced them to bring the show a little farther south to Maricopa. Only one obstacle stood in the way – money.

“The people here in Maricopa always say there is nothing to do here,” Brown said. “So, I thought this would be a good show for them to see, and they don’t have to leave Maricopa to see it.”

She searched high and low for a sponsor but kept striking out. She first tried the Maricopa Chamber of Commerce which, she said, was unable to help due to financial limitations. She then tried F.O.R. Maricopa, which also was unable to help due to previous obligations.

In her steadfast efforts to deliver the show to Maricopa, Brown decided to cut out the middle man.

“I said, ‘I’m going to just finance this thing myself’,” she said, “because I really want it to come here.”

For the past two years, she has funded the show solely with proceeds from ticket sales and her own pocketbook. Helen’s husband, Vice Mayor Marvin Brown, said don’t be fooled by the limited budget. The talent is there.

“It’s a wonderful show,” Marvin Brown said. “It truly is amazing to see seniors performing at that level.”

The show is part of the City of Chandler’s production, and as such most of the performers are from elsewhere in the Valley. However the show will feature one of Maricopa’s own – singer Michael Hunt.

Since he was 4-years-old and, Hunt, 66, has developed an “eclectic” style with great range that blends the rich tones of classic balladeers with modern R&B.

“I sing most genres of music,” Hunt said. “But, my heart is into Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and even Sam Cook.”

The April 8 show runs from 6-8 p.m. with a 15-minute intermission around 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com, and at the Maricopa Chamber of Commerce at 44480 W. Honeycutt Road, Suite 106.

This story appears in the April issue of InMaricopa.




The Benson Family Singers are (from left) Rachelle, Luke, Aaron (who sings lead), Peter and David. Submitted photo

The Benson Family Singers will perform at Calvary Chapel Maricopa Jan. 18.

They are a family music group from Faribault, Minnesota. Peter and Rachelle Benson along with their four sons – David, Aaron, Luke and Paul – have a unique ministry consisting of barbershop, bluegrass and gospel music.

They specialize in tight, a cappella harmonies and also play a variety of instruments, including guitar, banjo, bass, violin and mandolin. Together, they have performed for many shows, festivals, fairs, churches and private events throughout the Midwest, including Branson, Missouri.

The Bensons use their music, humor and message to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For more information and to hear song samples, visit BensonFamilyMusic.com. Also find them at Facebook.com/TheBensonFamily.

Their Wednesday performance is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Calvary Chapel is at 44301 W. Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway, Suite 105.

Fushicho Daiko drum ensemble will perform for World Music Showcase on Saturday. Submitted photo

If You Go
What: Maricopa Arts Council’s World Music Showcase
Where: Copper Sky Community Green
When: Nov. 18, 6-7:30 p.m.
How much: Free
Note: Bring your own light refreshments and a blanket for the lawn.

Maricopa ARTS Council (MAC) will present a World Music Showcase outside at Copper Sky on Nov.  18, featuring music and dance from two vital and diverse non-European cultures.

This free special event is the main November offering in MAC’s 3-season expo “Got Arts, Maricopa?,” dedicated to celebrating local talents and to introducing the city to types of arts never before experienced in Maricopa.

The showcase features the taiko drum ensemble Fushicho Daiko and the Ak-Chin Indian Community’s Ak Chin Band and Ak-Chin Ba’ Ban Keihina Traditional Dancers. The cultures and traditions behind each of these ensembles were formed ages ago, and their performances carry meanings far beyond mere entertainment into the spiritual realm.

Taiko is the Japanese word for “great drum.” This ancient musical art form originated centuries ago as a means of communication to signal distant villages of advancing enemies or natural disasters. Fushicho Daiko Phoenix Drummers is Arizona’s premier professional taiko group performing both traditional and original Taiko songs in costume with power, energy, skill and joy.

The musicians of the Ak Chin Band and the Ak-Chin Ba’ Ban Keihina Traditional Dancers are sought after for demonstration and festival performances because their traditional dress and beautiful hand-woven baskets form a compelling example of tribal culture and traditions come to life.

This article appears in the November issue of InMaricopa.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has been entertaining for 23 years and sold over 2 million albums. They will be in Maricopa Oct. 28.

When swing-style music made a comeback in the mid-1990s, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was on the frontlines. With a modern take on the Big Band sound of the ‘40s and a memorable name, the band hit at the right time, but they did not just ride the wave of a passing fad.

If You Go
Who: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
When: Oct. 28, 8 p.m.
Where: The Lounge at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, 15406 N. Maricopa Road
How much: Free
Info: Caesars.com/Harrahs-Ak-Chin

Drummer Kurt Sodergren, who co-founded the band with lead vocalist/songwriter Scotty Morris, said they started the conversation in the late ‘90s to orchestrate BBVD’s approach to longevity if and when the retro swing craze passed.

“We knew our fan base wasn’t fickle, and we always reach out in the meet-and-greets after shows,” Sodergren said. “Our music makes them happy and keeps them coming back.”

BBVD has also branched out, performing with symphonies and in performing arts settings.

To keep their hardcore fans and create new ones, the band has the motto of “Yes.” They accept most invitations to perform that they can fit in their schedule of 150 shows a year.

“We’re trying to play in a lot of new venues,” Sodergren said.

That now includes Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, where Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will be playing in The Lounge on Oct. 28 at 8 p.m.

Morris, who has a lifelong love of swing and jazz and plays a mean blues guitar, originally started the band in 1989. He named it for a signature he received from guitar legend Albert Collins, whose autograph included the phrase “To Scotty, the big bad voodoo daddy.”

After Morris joined forces with Sodergren, BBVD was re-launched in 1993 in Ventura, California. They were part of an underground swing movement in the Los Angeles area, where they called the Derby nightclub home.

Sondergren, originally from Pontiac, Michigan, mainly grew up in Ventura. His grandfather was a saxophonist in big bands in the ‘40s, including with the U.S. Army during World War II. Kurt’s father had an impressive record collection that exposed young Kurt to the bands of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.


He started playing drums with the school band because “it was the only thing that wasn’t being played.”

After hearing the Benny Goodman Orchestra’s renowned 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall, Sodergren was floored by Gene Krupa’s work on the drums. “They didn’t even need to have the music,” he said.

Krupa always remains an influence, as do others like John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, who himself was influenced by Big Band-era drummers.

The deep well of swing and jazz comprehension from Morris and Sodergren combined with the classical training of their bandmates gave BBVD a well-balanced attack.

With its music highlighted in the cult film Swingers, BBVD leaped onto the national stage in 1996. At the same time, bands like Flying Neutrinos, Squirrel Nut Zippers and the ska band Cherry Poppin’ Daddies were using a retro sound on the rising tide of neo swing.

BBVD parlayed that into more than 2 million album sales, starting with their eponymous album in 1994. Sodergren said they have finished recording their 10th studio album, a tribute to the music of Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan and Louis Prima. It is due out next year.

The touring band is filled out by Joshua Levy on piano, Antony Bonsera on lead trumpet, Dirk Shumaker on bass, Glen “The Kid” Marhevka on trumpet, Karl Hunter on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones and clarinet, Andy Rowley on baritone sax and Alex Henderson on trombone.

They make a point of staying after a performance to meet with the crowd.

“We have really friendly guys in the band who are fun to hang out with,” Sodergren said.

Originally from St. Louis, Maricopan Tony Vicich leads a comedy workshop in Tempe. He got his start in stand-up comedy in 1978. Photo by Katie Mayer

By Katie Mayer

Ask Maricopa Meadows resident Tony Vicich a question and you’ll likely get a joke in return.

His words may surprise you, or perhaps make you think, but they’ll almost always make you laugh.

That’s because Vicich is a seasoned comedian who excelled at his craft for decades as a touring comic. He is now a key player in cultivating the next generation of Arizona comics. With his jokes appearing on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Show with David Letterman” and he himself performing on Showtime and Comedy Central, Vicich has made his mark on Hollywood as much as Arizona.

Today, the 60-year-old St. Louis native owns and operates ComedySchools.com and is gearing up to launch his own radio show. He appears regularly at Tempe Center for the Arts and at restaurants, bars and clubs around the Valley.

“Comedy is in the way you think,” Vicich says. “Finally what you think doesn’t sound insane, get you in trouble or make people cry or punch you – it makes them laugh.”

Surprisingly, Vicich didn’t start as a comic. Instead, he pursued acting when he first moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s – studying Method Acting under world-renowned instructor Lee Strasberg, who once taught Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe.

“I wanted to be a dramatic actor,” Vicich says while making a sweeping gesture with his hand.

Like other comics, Vicich talks fast with a raspy voice. A look beyond his gray ponytail and goatee reveals a shockingly well-informed mind brimming with random facts on everything from history to literature to current events.

“The good comics are very serious people and, oddly enough, very good people,” he says. “We have a heightened sense of injustice.”

But the good side of Vicich, which so many know today, was once masked by his demons. Bartending to support himself during the freewheeling 1970s in Hollywood, Vicich tumbled down a path of heavy drug and alcohol use and eventually into what he calls a career in “unlicensed pharmaceutical sales.”

“I was living in Hollywood and was 23 at the time,” Vicich says. “It led to an epicurean lifestyle – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”

His first time performing stand-up was in 1978 at The Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, where “it went so horribly that I never went onto another stage until I sobered up,” Vicich says.

Still, he saw many of the great comics of the day such as Jimmie “J.J.” Walker and Jay Leno and rubbed shoulders with Robin Williams.

By the 1980s Vicich became sober, and from there his career skyrocketed.

“I had a white-light moment,” Vicich says of his sobriety.

The moment came after Vicich was arrested for DUI and found himself out of jail, inebriated again and yelling at a 7-Eleven employee to sell him booze.

“When I got home I was so drunk and I looked up and said, ‘God, I know I said you don’t exist, but now I do … please help me stop drinking and doing drugs,’” Vicich says.

He called a sober friend, started attending 12-step meetings and has now been sober more than 30 years.

Vicich then hooked up with frequent late show comedian and prominent sitcom writer Ritch Shydner after meeting him at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood. Together, the two performed around the country, including their first gig in Phoenix in 1985.

“He’s as funny as anyone I’ve ever met,” says Shydner, who lives in Los Angeles. “As a comedian, he wrote lines that I used on my appearances on ‘The Tonight Show’ and the ‘Late Show with David Letterman.’”

Vicich also married and adopted a daughter, Alishia. His comedy work allowed him to make a good living and support his family.

“There is no better father in the world than that guy,” Shydner says.

But just when life seemed to be on a steady track for the comedian, Vicich experienced what he calls “an implosion of events.”

His marriage fell apart,; a comedy club he owned in Oklahoma City went under and he found himself jobless. Just when he was about to start work at the post office, his lucked changed.

“Sometimes what you think is the worst part of your life becomes the best,” Vicich says.

He was asked by comedian Craig Shoemaker to help with a one-man show in San Francisco. There he learned the art and business of operating comedy workshops from San Francisco Comedy College owner Kurtis Matthews.

“I told Tony ‘You are great with people and a good comedian, let me help you get into the business,” Matthews recalls. “I gave him the structure for his school, but he truly made it his own, and people just kept coming.”

Today, Matthews credits Vicich as one of the reasons the Valley has such a large volume of comedy clubs.

“When you have so many comedians, they need a place to go,” Matthews says.

One of those comedians is Valerie Roberts, of Gilbert, who started Vicich’s classes last year and is now preparing to headline her own show at Tempe Center for the Arts.

“Tony taught me that even when you think your writing is great, you can always go back and make it better,” Roberts says.

Today, what Vicich loves most about teaching comedy is “seeing the fog lift from a student’s eyes and then watching them say something funny on their own.”

His other loves are his wife of two years Shirley Vicich and living in Maricopa – although he does perform a bit mocking the city on everything from how much home values dipped to how far away Maricopa is to the smell of cows.

“It’s home here,” Vicich says.

In fact, he’s the last remaining original homeowner on his street, he says. As so many others gave up their homes, he kept his.

“It’s like being a frontier guy and when everyone else left, we stayed,” Vicich says proudly.

His old mentor Matthews chuckles at the stark contrast Vicich is today to the man he was in the past.

“Who knew under this hard living Hollywood guy is a cowboy wanting to live out there?” Matthews says.
“I’m happy he is thriving … he’s a natural teacher; he loves standup and he loves the industry.”

This story previously appeared in the Fall Edition of InMaricopa the Magazine.

A three-taco plate offers a variety of flavors at Cilantro’s Mexican Cocina. Photo by Donna Atkins

Winner: Cilantro’s Mexican Cocina

In an online poll at inMaricopa.com, readers were divided on who serves the best taco among the city’s food establishments. After a heated battle among several contenders, Cilantro’s edged out Tacos ‘N’ More by just 3 votes.

“Our tacos are good quality and homemade. Our cilantro sauce is very popular. We have tomatillo and, my favorite, spicy red sauce. The carne asada is gourmet with flour soft tortillas. And that’s why we have the best tacos in the city of Maricopa.” – Owner/chef Juan Quezada, Cilantro’s Mexican Cocina

Cilantro’s owner Juan Quezada. Photo by Donna Atkins

This story was published in the Fall Edition of InMaricopa The Magazine.

Poll results
Poll results