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Photo by Melissa Taylor

This holiday season, Theatre Under The Stars is presenting an eye-popping, spectacular, and wonder-filled production of the Disney classic Mary Poppins. Based on the Disney film and book by P.L. Travers, this brand-new production of the hit musical runs December 6-24 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

As the cast gathers and rehearsals begin — mere weeks before the first performance — CultureMap sat down with Olivia Hernandez, who plays the practically perfect nanny, to talk flying, family bonding, and finding new ways to approach such an iconic character.

CultureMap: Is this your first time picking up the umbrella and playing Mary Poppins?

Olivia Hernandez: It's not actually — I've played her once before, and I think Mary is the prefect convergence of my skills. Not only is she vocally exciting for me to sing, but I relate to her a lot.

CM: How so?

OH: She's such a complex character. She's fun and imaginative but also firm and determined. I was reading the P.L. Travers book that the musical and movie are based on and had so much to discuss with our director, Julie Kramer. Mary is so unexpected at every turn!

The first adjective the book uses to describe her is "vain," and I had always wondered what that was about. But when you think about it, she is very put together and particular about things, especially the way she looks. She knows how something is supposed to be, and won't settle for anything less. She's not your typical archetype.

CM: What's it like bringing this iconic character to life?

OH: It’s challenging, because first and foremost I want to be a Mary Poppins that people recognize, and not confuse anyone. But since the musical is a little different from the movie that everyone is so familiar with, and incorporates some elements from the book, it gives me the chance to bring myself to the role.

It's a challenge to put all those things together, but hopefully we're coming up with an end result that makes people think more about her than they ever have before.

CM: You said rehearsals just began — have you started flying yet?

OH: Not yet, but I'm so looking forward to it! I've never flown before, but I'm very unafraid of heights so I'm excited to get up there.

CM: What's your personal favorite part of the show?

OH: "Feed the Birds," for sure. It's just such a beautiful song, so haunting and touching, and Susan Koozin is incredibly moving when she sings it. That specific moment in the musical is a very important lesson that Mary is teaching Jane and Michael, and it's a song that sticks with everyone.

CM: Why should Houstonians come see the show this holiday season?

OH: It’s such a great show to bring your whole family to. There are lessons to be learned by everyone in this show, and the whole family learns to reconnect with each other through Mary Poppins. That's a really relevant lesson right now, as a lot of us are disconnecting from each other (especially while connecting more to our phones).

This show helps you remember what’s important, and it's perfect for the holidays for that reason, especially after a really rough two years.

And what’s not to love? Every time we bring up Mary Poppins to someone, people have such warm feelings about it. I get it! I grew up watching the movie and it's my husband's absolute favorite movie. It's special when something has that sort of staying power.

I also think it’s really wonderful to see such a diverse group of people in our cast. In a lot of ways, this cast really reflects what Houston looks like, with people from many different backgrounds and abilities and a lot of young people. It's exciting to see them all and see what we create together.

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TUTS' production of Mary Poppins runs December 6-24, 2022, at the Hobby Center for Performing Arts. Click here to purchase tickets.

Photo by Melissa Taylor

Olivia Hernandez portrays the practically perfect nanny.

Graphic courtesy of TUTS

Mary Poppins flies into TUTS for a jolly holiday of music and magic

Practically Perfect

Spend a jolly holiday season with Theatre Under The Stars and its eye-popping, spectacular, and wonder-filled production of the Disney classic Mary Poppins. Based on the Disney film and book by P.L. Travers, this brand-new production of the hit musical runs December 6-24 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

Though rehearsals have yet to begin, the creative team is already hard at work. CultureMap sat down with director Julie Kramer and choreographer Jessica Hartman — who had both just come from a meeting discussing the show's flying — to talk theater magic, family bonding, and the enduring fascination for this fix-it-all nanny.

CultureMap: Julie, what made you interested in directing this show?

Julie Kramer: I’m so intrigued by Mary Poppins. Her story is almost 100 years old and she's such an unusual heroine, coming in and rescuing everyone. I also love that this show is an expression of community — from the chimney sweeps to the eccentric neighbors to the woman who feeds the birds, everyone is a part of the experience.

Our cast is a mix of actors out of New York and leading lights of the Houston theater community, and together we're composing a love letter to this town and theater in general. Getting to make magic with something that's so beautiful and joyous, especially after the pandemic, feels like a huge gift.

CM: Jessica, why did you want to choreograph this show?

Jessica Hartman: My Virgo personality has never quite understood Mary Poppins but as I've grown older, my perspective has shifted. She changes the way this family is looking at each other and helps them to see each other in a different way, and that's a good challenge for me. How do I take something that I know so well and honor what has existed before while still being creative and take the audience somewhere unexpected?

CM: How do you begin to approach a show with so many “magical” elements?

JK: I already had a fascination with magic and magicians and putting them onstage, so this show encourages that interest. There's flying and things appearing from the magic carpetbag, and I’m looking for every opportunity to find magic in the staging and create unexpected moments that you will probably not have seen in other productions. TUTS has a fantastic props department and we’ll be using them for all they’re worth.

JH: Mary Poppins is magical from the beginning — she makes anything possible — so we want the audience to feel like Jane and Michael discovering all these new wonders. We've really taken a microscope to the script to find those moments.

CM: How do you make a classic that's beloved by so many your own?

JK: It's no secret that PL Travers had some issues with the movie, so we’ve been talking a lot about her and what she thought. The stage musical is more British, grounded in this world of Edwardian London, and the book is by Julian Fellowes, who did Downton Abbey.

But it's also still a Disney show, so there still needs to be that family feel and those truly magical Disney moments. There’s also more music in the musical, which means you get the songs and numbers you know and love but might also discover new favorites. Sadly, there are no dancing penguins ... but don't think I wasn't tempted!

CM: What do you think audiences will like most about this musical?

JH: As a mom during Christmas, the thing I want most for my daughter is experiences. Going to the theater with your family and seeing something so magical — nothing can beat that.

JK: This cast is phenomenal; you're going to see a very high level of performance. But also one of the first things I did after Broadway reopened was take my whole family to see Aladdin. To be able to sit with them and watch genies be real and magic carpets fly, to feel that joy and possibility together as a family was so healing. It reminded me why I do what I do.

I really hope people will take this opportunity to gather their families together and come to the show. It speaks to parents and children and our childhood selves, and it has so much heart. That’s ageless and timeless.

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TUTS' production of Mary Poppins runs December 6-24, 2022, at the Hobby Center for Performing Arts. Click here to purchase tickets.

Photo courtesy of Houston SPCA

Let Leo the shepherd mix steal your heart at the Houston SPCA

Adoptable Pet

It's hard not to fall in love with Leo, a two-year-old Anatolian shepherd mix whose smile is as big as his heart.

The Houston SPCA rescued him from a not-so-ideal situation, but now he's ready to spread happiness wherever he goes — including his new home.

At 47 pounds, Leo is the perfect size for both snuggling and play time. You could say he's never met a stranger, and that goes for four-legged and two-legged new friends alike.

Leo has been making the Houston SPCA staff smile with his contagious enthusiasm, love of treats, and "good boy" attitude, and he'd be thrilled to add you to his fan club.

Leo's adoption fee is only $55, and includes his microchip, neuter surgery, up-to-date vaccinations, a free sample bag of Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and a free post-exam from any VCA Animal Hospital.

You can meet Leo and all his friends this weekend at the Houston SPCA, which is open every day from 11 am-6 pm.

Photo courtesy of Houston SPCA

Just look at that smile.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Onscreen intrigue in Don't Worry Darling blunts off-screen drama

Movie Review

Opportunities for female directors have only been growing in recent years, a development that’s taken too long to happen. One of the beneficiaries of this sea change is Olivia Wilde, who made her directorial debut with 2019’s well-received Booksmart. Now she’s back with her highly-anticipated (for an assortment of reasons) sophomore film, Don’t Worry Darling.

The film stars Florence Pugh as Alice Chambers, who lives in a utopian small desert town with her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), who works for a company called Victory. The town has all the trappings of an idyllic version of the 1950s, from the style of the houses to the cars to the way the wives dote on their husbands. But right away it’s clear there’s something off about the town, especially since everyone seems to hold up the company’s leader, Frank (Chris Pine), as some kind of infallible person.

Olivia Wilde and Nick Kroll in Don't Worry Darling Olivia Wilde and Nick Kroll in Don't Worry Darling Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Alice starts to sense the cracks in town’s veneer, and gradually tests the boundaries that everyone else adheres to faithfully. Her suspicions only deepen when another wife disappears, and anyone with whom she chooses to confide gaslights her into thinking that she’s losing her mind. Trying to figure out what’s real or not drives her to do many things that threaten the whole town’s way of life.

Collaborating once again with Booksmart writer Katie Silberman, Wilde creates a mysterious and tension-filled film that is about as far away from the revelry of her previous film as you could get. There are times when the story starts to become too enigmatic for its own good, but Wilde seems to know exactly when to add on a new layer to keep viewers interested in where the story will take them next.

Wilde and Silberman also continue to explore gender politics through this well-told allegory. The actions of Alice and the other women (which include Wilde, Gemma Chan, Kiki Layne, Kate Berlant, and others) come off as Stepford Wives-ish, but they also act in ways inconsistent with people who have been brainwashed. When secrets finally start to be revealed, the story takes on a deeper meaning of male insecurity and female empowerment.

Chris Pine in Don't Worry Darling Chris Pine in Don't Worry Darling Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The behind-the-scenes technical team greatly aids in the mood of the film. The production design by Katie Byron is impeccable, and it and the desert landscape are shot extremely well by cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Especially standing out is the score by John Powell, who utilizes unconventional sounds and voices to create music that elevates every scene to which it’s attached.

Pugh has already been a star for several years, and she shows yet again why she’s held in such high esteem. She brings just the right level of angst, confusion, and anger to the evolution of her character, making her compelling throughout. Styles acquits himself well in his biggest role to date, never coming off as just a singer pretending to be an actor. Pine is also great as the creepy-but-charismatic Frank, demonstrating skills that every good cult leader needs.

Don’t Worry Darling holds a lot more than what it shows on the surface, making it a great second film for the talented Wilde. With a proven ability to jump between genres effortlessly, she should be given many more opportunities to tell stories on the big screen.

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Don't Worry Darling opens in theaters on September 23.

Don't Worry Darling | Official Trailer www.youtube.com

Greater Heights: Eclectic small-town vibes in the big city

Your Expert Guide

There are so many great places to live in Houston that it helps to have an expert on your side. The Neighborhood Guide presented by Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty gives you insider access from the agents who live and work there, providing in-the-know info about your possible new community.
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"The Greater Heights is an eclectic small town in the middle of a big city,” says Thomas Claffy, a native Texan and longtime Houston resident who has been selling homes in this area for nearly 20 years.

Claffy has a true passion not only for real estate, but also for architecture and design, so it’s no surprise he gravitates to the historic Heights’ Victorian homes and other rich and character-filled architecture, some that dates back to the 1800s.

Located northwest of downtown, the Heights is also known for its quirky mom and pop-type shops, quaint boutiques along 19th Street, and funky cafes.

For Claffy, who enjoys “digging in the dirt” at home, the great nurseries are one of his favorite hidden gems, including Buchanan’s Native Plants, Another Place in Time, and Joshua’s Native Plants & Garden.

Claffy offered up a few of his personal favorites about life in the Greater Heights. Here's his guide to the area:

Where to eat & drink
For the “best burger ever!” go to Squable, Claffy exclaims. It’s a French cheeseburger with a stout beef patty, raclette, butter, and pickles — and “frites,” of course.

You also can’t go wrong with a gourmet coffee at Boomtown to jump-start the day.

Where to play
One of Claffy’s favorite ways to unwind is with a long bike ride on the extensive trails in the Heights, like the Heights Hike and Bike Trail.

He also recommends the newly revitalized Houston Farmers Market, which traces its roots back to the early 1940s and still includes many longtime vendors with the widest selection of fresh produce in the city.

Now, the market also features new restaurants from celebrated Houston chefs, street food vendors, a Wagyu beef butcher shop, and more.

What to see
The Heights is packed with music venues, including one of the oldest in Houston, The Heights Theater, where you can grab tickets to a concert or other live music.

Another go-to place for good vibes and good times is White Oak Music Hall, which boasts dramatic views of the Houston skyline.

14 Pews is a small church-turned-indie movie house that screens art-house films and documentaries.

Where to live
“A front porch is synonymous with the Heights,” says Claffy. “Classic bungalow architecture — whether old or new — is prevalent, with a few modern homes sprinkled in for good measure.”

A prime example of a traditional Heights home is 102 Northwood Street, a recent sale of Claffy’s. The bungalow-style property has a large wraparound porch and timeless yet modern interiors along with a patio that’s perfect for entertaining friends and family.

“Thomas is amazing and we would never use anyone else,” says the seller. “He has a ton of experience and connections, and on top of all that he's the nicest, most genuine person.”

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Thomas Claffy works and plays in the Greater Heights. For more information on buying and selling a home in the area, click here, email homes@thomasclaffy.com, or call 832-875-3275.

Agent Thomas Claffy

Photo courtesy of Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty
Agent Thomas Claffy
Photo courtesy of Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty

Piney Point: Genteel charm in a serene greenspace

Your Expert Guide

There are so many great places to live in Houston that it helps to have an expert on your side. The Neighborhood Guide presented by Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty gives you insider access from the agents who live and work there, providing in-the-know info about your possible new community.
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Clocking in at just under 3,500 residents, Piney Point is part of a cluster of upscale, residential communities located just west of the Inner Loop and known as the Memorial Villages.

Tucked into the middle of the vibrant city, Piney Point is a tony cocoon where you can expect gracious homes on sprawling lots and meandering lanes, all under a canopy of towering pines and lazy oaks.

“It’s hard not to be transfixed by the ‘green’ here — the spectacular lawns, the hedges, and most of all, the trees,” say real estate agent Betsy Vanderbrouk, who herself lived in Piney Point for more than 25 years.

“I loved its close-knit community, peaceful charm, and country-village feel from the start,” she says. “The country lanes and tucked-away paths host families, children on bikes, runners, and more. On Saturdays, the neighbors find themselves walking to the area farmers market for the freshest items, some music, delightful visits, and even goat yoga.”

Vanderbrouk helped start successful, well-known events in the area, including the annual 4th of July parade and festival for all the Memorial Villages. The parade features everything from children on tricycles to fire engines and marching bands, culminating in a music and food-filled extravaganza.

The annual Memorial High School graduation parade, where the cars of graduating seniors are decorated with the colors and mascots of the colleges and universities they will be attending, is another neighborhood bonding experience.

When she’s not activating her 30 years of real estate experience to help clients with their housing needs, she may just be in her kitchen or entertaining, or dropping off homemade treats to her friends and clients.

Vanderbrouk offered up a few of her personal favorites about life in Piney Point. Here's her guide:

Where to eat & drink
While there is no commercial business allowed in Piney Point, the destinations are all close by — starting with Jonathan’s The Rub, says Vanderbrouk. “They have great food and wine, and it’s a terrific place to catch up with neighbors.”

“Another wonderful watering hole is bpd — get the blackened tuna bites; they are amazing!” she advises.

For the perfect smoked goodness, Vanderbrouk heads to Roegels Barbecue and, for the ultimate old-fashioned burger (or many other variations of the iconic sandwich), it’s Southwell’s Hamburger Grill.

And about Goode Co. Kitchen & Cantina, she just has one word: “yum!”

Vanderbrouk also points out that the original Carrabba's is on Voss, and it’s a must. “Is there anything more fun than watching the kids at the pizza bar? And don't miss chatting with Rosie! She has greeted us with her delightful smile since it opened so many, many years ago.”

Where to play
“In Piney Point, hop on your bike or put on your walking shoes and explore,” says Vanderbrouk. “The paths will take you through hidden gardens and into tucked-away ponds and fields. Although you’ll never be far from the main streets, you will feel as if you are worlds away.”

“The Saturday morning Farmers Market is in a nearby village, and it is definitely a gem for everyone in the Memorial Villages,” she adds.

The public library is a charming retreat for residents, as well.

What to see
Vanderbrouk suggests seeing the Piney Point farmhouse, which is now known as the Water Authority Home. “It once was located on the former Smithdale Farm (now the site of the Wexford Court and Smithdale Estates),” she says. “But when they decided to develop the land for residential use, they moved the farmhouse to the Water Authority land to preserve it."

Where to live
Piney Point properties may be original, one-story ranch homes of the 1950s; sprawling, newer one-story homes; or spacious two-story residences.

“Large, luscious lots are a wonderful requirement here,” says Vanderbrouk. “So we have the land for sweeping lawns, tennis courts, amazing pools, and spectacular entertaining areas."

Vanderbrouk has watched the village change from these single-family ranch homes to gracious estates, and has participated in all phases of those sales — often selling the same properties over and over as families move on to different stages in their lives.

An exemplary representation of a Piney Point property is 11505 Dunsinane, which Vanderbrouk sold for the original owner and sold again to a new buyer.

It’s a custom-built home with a magnificent imported Spanish tile and copper roof, 12- and 14-foot ceilings, Venetian plaster walls, and Champignon travertine floors. Outside, gardens are laid out with seasonal sight, fragrance, and sound in mind and surround a resort-quality loggia, terraces, and outdoor kitchen.

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Betsy Vanderbrouk works and plays in Piney Point. For more information on buying and selling a home in the area, click here, email betsy.vanderbrouk@sothebyshomes.com, or call 832-236-9999.

Agent Betsy Vanderbrouk.

Photo courtesy of Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty
Agent Betsy Vanderbrouk.
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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Iconic Texas 'cowboy-style' BBQ joint's Katy outpost closure leads week's top stories

this week's hot headlines

Editor's note: It's time to recap the top stories on CultureMap from this past week.

1. Iconic Texas 'cowboy-style' barbecue joint's Katy location quietly closes. Sadly, the local outpost couldn't replicate the magic of the original in Llano.

2. Ken Hoffman urges Houston travelers to keep calm and enjoy the trip at the new-look Bush IAH. Our columnist explains why travelers might be in "for a big, pleasant surprise at Houston’s Bush-Intercontinental Airport."

3. Houston's most spectacular winter light shows and events dazzle for the holidays. We rounded up where to see dazzling lights with family, friends, and visitors.

4. Disgraced Theranos CEO and former Houstonian Elizabeth Holmes sentenced to 11 years for fraud. Additionally, Holmes faces a fine of $400 million.

5. Houston's NASA leaders 'giddy' after historic Artemis 1 moon flyby. The spacecraft cruised just 81 miles above the lunar surface.

Disney's Strange World is a visual stunner with too many story ideas

Movie Review

For a studio whose entire reason for being seems to rely on creating and sustaining familiar characters, Walt Disney Animation takes its fair share of risks. In the last 10 years, it has released nine films, seven of which were not based on pre-existing properties (the other two were sequels for two of those seven). That’s a lot of new stuff, most of which has succeeded mightily for the perennially-popular leaders in animation.

They’re at it again with Strange World, which takes place in an unknown country/world known as Avalonia, where Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is a famous explorer whose only desire is to find a way over, around, or through the imposing mountains surrounding the land. His son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), doesn’t share his enthusiasm, and an early discovery by Searcher of a unique energy source leads to a rift between father and son. Jaeger continues onwards, while Searcher returns home with a plant they call Pando that creates harmony throughout the land.

Years later, when the plant shows signs of failure, Searcher is recruited by Avalonia leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) to help in an expedition to find the source of whatever is attacking Pando. What they and others – including Searcher’s wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) – find in their travels certainly lives up to the title.

Co-directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen and written by Nguyen, the film is a visual stunner. The quality of animation in Disney movies rarely fails to impress, and Strange World is the latest and greatest example. Whether it’s the humans, the landscape, or the innumerable weird creatures that populate the film, there is almost nothing that doesn’t deserve to be stared at and admired.

It’s odd, then, that the story does not come close to matching the graphics. There are a variety of reasons for this failure. Nguyen is the sole credited writer, and he stuffs the film full of big and small ideas, probably too many for this type of project. Searcher’s family and the world of Avalonia and beyond are diverse in multiple ways, to the point that it feels like Nguyen was trying to include everything he could think of in case he never got another shot.

The bigger sin, though, is how quickly the film advances through its plot, often bringing up new things out of nowhere. While Searcher and his family make for an interesting group, the side characters never make an impact. There are also multiple instances where the story takes a turn that makes no sense, either in the world of the film or a storytelling manner.

This includes the final act of the film, which features a significant twist that is presented and accepted in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. It adds on yet another message in a movie that contains a lot of them, but in a way that even those inclined to believe in what it’s trying to say may wonder why that part is there at all.

The science fiction element of Strange World is a bonanza for the filmmakers and animators to go as wild as they wanted in the visual department. But all that splendor is in service of a story that just doesn’t measure up, making it one of Disney’s less successful offerings in recent years.

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Strange World is now playing in theaters.

Photo courtesy of Disney

Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), and Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) in Strange World

Affluent Houston suburb leads region for highest holiday spending budgets in U.S.

Santa Baby

As the most wonderful time of the year approaches, holiday shopping budgets are in the spotlight, and a study from WalletHub lists Sugar Land as one of the top cities where Santa doesn't need a whole lot of help.

According to the personal finance website, the average holiday budget in Sugar Land is $2,793 per person, the 15th highest in the nation. As CultureMap previously reported, Sugar Land residents here make an average of $123,261; the average home price is $337,600.

Fittingly, Fort Bend, home to Sugar Land, was recently named the second-richest county in Texas.

As for Greater Houston, Santa's bag could be a mixed bag, with three suburbs in the top 100, but the urban center falling far behind:

  • Sugar Land, No. 15, $2,793
  • Pearland, No. 36, $2,172
  • The Woodlands, No. 71, $1,733
  • Houston, No. 366, $890

Each year, WalletHub calculates the maximum holiday budget for over 550 U.S. cities "to help consumers avoid post-holiday regret," the website says. The study factors in income, age of the population, and other financial indicators such as debt-to-income ratio, monthly-income-to monthly-expenses ratio and savings-to-monthly-expenses ratio.

Despite nationwide focus on inflation strains, holiday spending is expected to be healthy, and higher than last year.

"The seeming social upheaval in recent times may lead households to spend more in an attempt to take some control of the environment which they can control," says Robert Wright, University of Illinois, Springfield professor emeritus who was among five experts consulted for advice about holiday shopping.

Elsewhere in Texas, 10 North Texas cities landed in this year's top 100 heftiest holiday budgets:

  • Flower Mound, No. 3, $3,531 (The only Texas city in the top 10)
  • Allen, No. 17 , $2,670
  • Frisco, No. 37, $2,150
  • McKinney, No. 45, $2,070
  • Plano, No. 50, $1,999
  • Carrollton, No. 55, $1,837
  • Richardson, No. 58, $1,823
  • North Richland Hills, No. 81, $1,658
  • Lewisville, No. 90, $1,630
  • Fort Worth, No. 366, $890
  • Dallas, No. 401, $845

Spending in the Austin area won't be ho-hum with the Capitol City's budget of $1,705 ranked at No. 78. Two Austin suburbs, Cedar Park (budget $2,855) and League City (budget $2,541) ranked 14 and 20, respectively.

Things don't look too jolly for San Antonio, ranked at No. 431 with an average budget of $803 or Pharr, which was the lowest ranked city in Texas.

At No. 553 with a budget of $487, the Rio Grande Valley city came in just a few spots ahead of last place Hartford, CT with a budget of only $211.