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Seven years after his last area appearance, country singer Garth Brooks returned to North Texas on July 30, performing an electrifying two-hour concert that was as much a raucous, career-spanning show as it was a thank-you letter to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

In each city on Brooks' current Stadium Tour, the 60-year-old singer has paid tribute to one or more of his musical heroes, making no two shows the same. In Charlotte, NC, he played several James Taylor and Randy Travis songs. Salt Lake City was treated to three Keith Whitley covers. Birmingham got four Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.

On Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Brooks paid tribute to another entity that helped shape his career: Dallas-Fort Worth. In between nearly every song, Brooks reminded the sold-out crowd of about 90,000 of the instrumental role North Texas has played in his 40-year career.

"This is where we all started," he said multiple times, name-checking local bars and clubs, such as Cowboys and Borrowed Money, where he got his start in the late 1980s. "We lived here for the first two years of our careers."

He reminisced about past shows at American Airlines Center, the old Reunion Arena, and the now-gone Texas Stadium, where he played a string of special effects-laden shows in 1993.

Saturday's show put a clear focus on the music. Brooks' theatrical entrance — emerging on a platform beneath a rising drum kit — were about the show's only bells and whistles. Four large video screens, one on each side of the in-the-round stage, made sure every seat was a good one.

Following a short set by his wife, Trisha Yearwood, Brooks — dressed in a western shirt, Wranglers, boots, and cowboy hat — took the stage a little after 9:30 pm.

Backed by his longtime band, he opened with a triplet of boisterous, bar-room audience favorites — "All Day Long," "Rodeo," and "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House" — that set the tone of the show.

"We brought ALL the old stuff," he said before launching into "The Beaches of Cheyenne," a cut from his third album, 1995's Fresh Horses.

During classics such as "Papa Loved Mama," "That Summer," and his cover of Billy Joel's "Shameless," Brooks roamed and ran across the stage like a 20-year-old, waving and pointing to fans, reading their signs aloud and, in one instance, wishing someone a happy birthday. By the middle of the show, he'd worked up such a sweat, his purple shirt appeared black.

At times the show seemed meticulously choreographed, as during "Standing Outside the Fire," when video screens lit up with images of smoke and flames. Other times, it felt refreshingly casual: During the acoustic "Unanswered Prayers," most of the band sat down on the stage and talked to one another while Brooks performed.

Later, Brooks strummed through acoustic versions of "The Red Strokes" and "We Shall Be Free" — requests he spontaneously plucked from the audience.

Throughout the show, Brooks wore his humility on his sleeve, introducing each member of his band, many of whom have been with him since 1988, along with his crew. Yearwood was given the I-love-you treatment from Brooks: The two shared a duet, a cover of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's "Shallow," and an on-stage kiss.

The show was punctuated by a few guest appearances. Burleson native April Beck – a friend of Kelly Clarkson — joined the band for several songs, as did members of the G-Men, a group of Nashville studio musicians Brooks has worked with since he began his recording career but who've seldom performed live with him.

The G-Men were responsible for the show's most unforgettable moments. When Brooks introduced fiddle player Rob Hajacos, telling him to look at the audience he’d helped build, Hajacos became visibly choked up. Later, G-Men guitarist Mark Casstevens, a Fort Worth native, innocently shuffled about the stage before playing the first four notes of "Friends in Low Places," steering the band into a rambunctious highlight of the show.

Before the song ended, Brooks revealed to the audience that the song's seldom-heard third verse was written in — where else? — Dallas.

Video screens surrounded the in-the-round stage.

Copyright 8 Ten, Inc.
Video screens surrounded the in-the-round stage.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Hamilton cast satisfies Fort Worth audiences with nonstop energy

Theater review

At this point in the history of the Broadway juggernaut Hamilton, anyone who has had a desire to see it has been afforded many opportunities. If it wasn’t at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York, where it’s still running more than six years after its debut, or during one of its multiple national tours, it was on Disney+, where anyone can watch a (fantastic) recording of the original cast performing in 2016.

That easy streaming accessibility is a double-edged sword for anyone now performing the show. On one hand, it maintains the high interest in the production, as the continued sell-out crowds attest. But it also invites unfair comparisons to the original performers, whose takes on the roles have become ingrained in the minds of many fans.

Based on the performances on display from the Angelica cast, the national tour appearing at Bass Performance Hall through February 6, the current actors have found a way to make their roles their own while staying true to the story fans know and love.

Edred Utomi stars as Alexander Hamilton, bringing an ebullience and energy to the role, typified by two extremely high hops while performing the early show-stopper “My Shot.” His performance seems to bring out the best in the rest of the cast.

On this night, understudy Kameron Richardson replaced Josh Tower as Aaron Burr, but his confidence and mellifluous voice made it seem as if he was always the star. Likewise, John Devereaux moved from the ensemble to the critical part of George Washington (replacing Paul Oakley Stovall), appearing as if he had inhabited the role for years.

Naturally, much of this has to do with the genre-spanning songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda. He managed to find just the right way to combine the early history of the United States with the personal lives of those involved, bringing both to vivid life.

While songs like “Yorktown,” “Non-Stop,” and “The Room Where It Happens” make the military/government aspects of the story fantastically interesting, it’s female-fronted songs like “Satisfied,” “Burn,” and “Finale” that bring the big emotions to make the story fully connect. Stephanie Umoh as Angelica and Zoe Jensen as Eliza hit those moments as effectively as any previous actresses playing the characters.

While the songs get the most attention, what really makes them pop are the precise movements of everyone onstage by choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and director Thomas Kail. The choreography is often so mesmerizing that it’s equally as entertaining watching the ensemble as it is watching the main players in any particular scene. That’s especially true when characters add in extra dance moves designed to draw laughter from the audience — small but effective touches that elevate an already-entertaining show.

As always, the cast is comprised of actors of multiple races and nationalities, including Utomi (Nigerian), Jon Viktor Corpuz (Filipino), and David Park (Korean), giving even greater meaning to the “Immigrants … we get the job done” line in “Yorktown.” A fact that’s neither here nor there, other than the visuals they provide, is the generally short stature of the cast. Corpuz, Richardson, and Jensen are notably smaller than their castmates, but the size difference is no impediment to their powerful performances.

Exactly seven years after Hamilton was first performed Off-Broadway (January 20, 2015), the musical remains as impactful and compelling as it ever was. Billed as “the story of America then, told by America now,” it’s a wholly original text that offers representation, thrills, heartbreak, and some of the best music a Broadway show has ever put forth.

Photo courtesy of Visit Houston

Major Texas airport flies high as best and cleanest in the U.S.

Soaring to new heights

Travel can be tenuous of late, and choosing a good airport for a layover or plane change can be more important than ever. Both airports in one major Texas city have just landed high honors on a prestigious global ranking.

Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport is the No.1 airport in the U.S., according to the Skytrax 2021 World Airport Awards, specifically in the World’s Top 100 Airports category.

Bush also ranks as the cleanest airport in the nation. Bush scored second-best airport in North America, achieving both honors for the second consecutive year. Soaring six spots this year, Bush now ranks No. 25 among the top 100 world airports on this list.

IAH also finished fourth in the rankings for Best U.S. Airport Staff, according to a press release.

Meanwhile, Houston's Hobby Airport received several accolades as well, including the most improved airport in the U.S. The bustling Southwest Airlines hub also ranked third in the Best Regional Airports in North America category.

Hobby ranked 49th in the Top 100 Best World Airports category — up from 67th in 2020, per a release. Additionally, Hobby ranked tenth in the Cleanest Airports - North America category.

Notably, Houston is the only U.S. city to have two airports in the Best Airports in North America and Cleanest Airports categories.

Neither D-FW Airport nor Dallas Love Field made the list.

To generate the annual rankings, the Skytrax World Airport Awards rankings analyze the annual airport customer survey for the Passenger’s Choice Awards, conducted from August 2020 until July 2021. Many travelers voted for their favorite and/or best airport based on pre-pandemic travel experiences, while other customers voted after their COVID-19 airport experience during the past 12 months, a release notes.

Photo courtesy of Jubilee Theatre

Poignant Southern Boys soars as Jubilee Theatre's first Bass Hall show

Theater Review

In its first production at Bass Hall, Jubilee Theatre is making full use of the venue's big, gorgeous stage. Southern Boys: Sons of Sharecroppers may only have a single set, but it's beautifully filled with a talented cast, poignant story, and effective choreography.

Written by Kathy D. Harrison and directed by Jubilee's artistic director D. Wambui Richardson, Southern Boys focuses on a group of recently emancipated men and women in the post-slavery era who find themselves only able to make a living doing what they — or their parents — were once forced to do: pick cotton.

While the headstrong young Johnny (Jonah Munroe) dreams of hopping a train to find a better life in the north, academic-minded Titus (Dameron Growe) secretly teaches his friends how to read and write. Leader Malachi (Nijel Smith) keeps everyone on task, except for the perpetually on-break Otis (Davian Johnson).

Honey (Kris Black Jasper) is the group's matriarch and sets an example for Delilah (L'Paige Bedford), whom Johnny would like to whisk away to Chicacgo but who's content to stay on the plantation.

The story is punctuated with a mix of gospel, blues, country, and traditional musical theater tunes, all led by a skilled onstage trio comprised of music director Steven A. Taylor, Josh Willis, and Jason Bell.

Quintin Jones' choreography is simple and stylized, conveying longing, tedium, frustration, and hope with just a perfunctory march or an outstretched arm.

Lush lighting from Nikki DeShea Smith complements Allen Dean's set of the cotton field, anchored by a ramshackle lean-to that cleverly holds props.

Though Harrison recently wrote the show — it was a Best Musical nominee at the 2020 New York Theatre Festival — it's still incredibly relevant.

In fact, teacher and activist Opal Lee was in attendance for the performance I reviewed, receiving a standing ovation from the audience for her tireless work in getting Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday. A reminder that history isn't so far away, especially if we remember it through art.

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Jubilee Theatre's production of Southern Boys: Sons of Sharecroppers runs at Bass Hall through August 15.

Photo courtesy of Neon

Timely documentary Totally Under Control indicts U.S. response to COVID-19

Movie Review

Most documentaries take years to make, as filmmakers follow their subjects trying to piece together a specific story or, as is often the case, find the story as filming goes along. Totally Under Control is a wholly different experience, as it’s an of-the-moment retelling of how the Trump administration handled the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, something that is evolving even as we speak.

Directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side); Ophelia Harutyunyan; and Suzanne Hillinger, the film uses contemporary reporting on the pandemic along with a series of carefully orchestrated, socially-distant interviews with experts and Trump administration insiders. Among them are Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services under Barack Obama; Taison Bell, a frontline doctor; Dr. Rick Bright, a vaccine expert under Trump who became a whistleblower; and Max Kennedy, who volunteered to try to secure needed personal protective equipment under the leadership of presidential advisor Jared Kushner.

The thesis of the film — that President Trump and his administration have bungled nearly every opportunity to minimize the impact of the pandemic on the United States — should be clear to anyone who’s paid attention to the news in 2020. But even those who think they know the depth of the administration’s mistakes will still feel the impact of all of them laid bare in the no-nonsense manner demonstrated in the film.

The above interviewees have some of the most damning testimony, especially since two of them — Bright and Kennedy — were in the position to help directly, and wound up shocked and dismayed at the ineptitude of those supposedly in charge. Each bore witness to moments where their supervisors and others made decisions that either did little to help the American public, or worse, actively put them at risk merely because doing the right thing would be admitting they did something wrong.

The filmmakers also go to great pains to compare the U.S. response to that of South Korea, as both countries recorded their first COVID-19 cases on the same day. While the U.S. took its time ramping up testing and employing any other widespread preventative measures, the South Koreans moved quickly to identify cases, trace the contacts of those infected, and isolate people accordingly. After an early spike, South Korea has rarely exceeded more than 100 confirmed cases per day, whereas the U.S. hasn’t gone below 25,000 cases per day since mid-June.

The speed in which the film was made does have its limitations, though. Although it includes some recent revelations, including Trump’s interview with Bob Woodward in which he admits he knew more than he revealed to the public, the bulk of the film details moments in the first four months of the year. This obviously leaves out any number of things that transpired in the past five months, something which future films will be able to use to their advantage.

The stream of talking heads also makes for somewhat dull viewing. Although they each have some interesting tidbits to add, none of what they reveal is in any way shocking because the news of the pandemic has been the focus of all of 2020. What they have to say just reinforces everything we’ve learned this year, and none of it is good.

Totally Under Control is yet another indictment of the Trump administration in a year that has been full of them. Only time will tell if it’s a film that helped shed light on all that has gone wrong, or if it will be swept to the side in our never-ending chaotic news cycle.

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Totally Under Control is now available via Hulu, Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, VUDU, GooglePlay, and FandangoNow.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Daughter honors father by killing him repeatedly in Dick Johnson is Dead

Movie Review

There have been many fictional and documentary films made about patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, but you can count on one hand the number of them that make you laugh. To that tiny list you can now add Dick Johnson is Dead, a documentary that is a loving ode by a filmmaker to her ailing dad.

Dick Johnson is a psychiatrist in Seattle who’s retiring due to increasing memory issues. His daughter, cinematographer/director Kirsten Johnson, has come to move him to New York to live with her so he can have better care. However, being the creative type, Kirsten refuses to just watch her dad deteriorate.

Instead, she comes up with a series of macabre-but-funny situations showing Dick dying that she will film for posterity. Dick, being the affable and agreeable type, goes along with the ideas, which often include stunt men standing in for him as he, among other things, gets hit by falling air conditioner, trips down the stairs, or has his jugular punctured by a clumsy construction worker.

The scenes are all in good fun and are clearly a way for Dick and Kirsten to connect in his waning years. Kirsten also comes up with some truly beautiful tableaus, including a wake for Dick while he’s still alive featuring his family and friends, and a fanciful sequence with dancers wearing oversized faces of Dick and his late wife, Katie Jo.

All the while, we’re treated to the obviously loving relationship that Dick and Kirsten have. While Kirsten doesn’t shy away from the reality of what Dick is going through, neither does she wallow in the sadness of it. The various death scenes and the film as a whole are meant to be a celebration of the kind of man Dick is, and that purpose comes through in every frame.

The film is not polished in the slightest, as Kirsten keeps in moments where the camera is out of focus or even pointed at odd angles. But the whole point is for the audience to see and hear the truth of Dick’s condition and their relationship, and those honest moments are what make the film what it is.

Every good parent deserves to be celebrated the way that Kirsten honors her dad in Dick Johnson is Dead. His condition may be sad, but the film gives many more opportunities to smile and appreciate him than it does making you cry.

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Dick Johnson is Dead will stream exclusively on Netflix starting October 2.

Dick Johnson in Dick Johnson is Dead.

Photo courtesy of Netflix
Dick Johnson in Dick Johnson is Dead.
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Monumental new sculptures by  renowned 9/11 artist take root at Texas Botanic Garden

blooming work

Here is something new for Texas travelers who enjoy exploring art in nature. An intriguing new collection of sculptures called "Intertwined: Exploring Nature's Networks," by renowned artist Steve Tobin, opened at the Houston Botanic Garden on January 28.

Tobin's collection of pieces soar and wind and unfold against the backdrop of the gardens paths and trees, connecting the bronze, glass, ceramic, and steel sculptures to the landscape.

The connection is important for Tobin, an artist who may be most well known for his Trinity Root, a memorial that was cast from the roots of the tree that protected one of New York City's cathedrals during the 9/11 attacks. As a child, he was known as "Nature Boy," which he says was as apt then as now.

"I would find twigs or mushrooms, and they would mean something to me," he says. "I'm the guy with my nose in the sand and my butt in the air, looking deeper than most people. I think I see more. I think it's part of my DNA."

Originally from Pennsylvania, Tobin graduated from Tulane University in 1979 with a degree in math. He was always drawn to art, however, and his massive creations - from eggs in birds' nests to roots and limbs woven together to branches stretching to sky - evoke the powerful pull he feels to the natural world and a desire to help others see its beauty. The Christian Science Monitor described his works as "monuments to the meeting of science an art."

"Science is more creative that art," he explains. "Scientists have to describe the universe from nothing, and the explanation has to work. Artists can make up whole worlds. Scientists don't get credit for their vast creativity."

By focusing his works on the natural world, Tobin looks to showcase how the two subjects work in harmony, and how people can interact with them. In Eagle Nest, a huge, polished steel egg sits perched in nest.

Polished to a high gloss, the egg becomes a mirror. "You look at the egg and you see yourself," Tobin says. "It shows that you are in the egg."

For Tobin, there is magic in helping people, whether they are art novices or aficionados, find a connection with his art.

"I've done my job when someone has an expression of magic," he says. "And once you open that door, even for a second, it can never be fully closed."

He says he is looking forward to Texas audiences seeing his works in the garden, which he feels is a natural place for his sculptures — the biggest of which is 30 feet high and took 2,000 hours of welding to complete.

Showcasing his sculptures there cements the harmony with nature he feel and thinks is something others should strive to see. Tobin even has a connection to Houston: one of his great friends, a woman he met at Tulane, lives there.

Two other pieces also have roots there. Tobin says Steel Roots will resonate particularly well in Texas. "It's made from repurposed oil pipe, a lot of it from Texas," he says. "So now, it's back home in a different context."

And when Botanic Garden guest encounter the Twisties, they'll likely recall hearing the terms from gymnast Simone Biles, who famously used the word to describe the disconnect she felt between her mind and her body. Tobin's sculptures are between eight and 17 feet high and evoke Asian calligraphy. He describes them as "distorted gymnastics."

Mostly, though, Tobin wants visitors to get a window into how he imagines the world.

"I try to translate into sculpture what I see so people can see what I see."

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"Intertwined: Exploring Nature's Networks" runs Saturday, January 28 through August 13 at Houston Botanic Garden, 1 Botanic Garden Ln. Regular garden admission is $15. For tickets and more information, visit Houston Botanic Garden online.

Photo courtesy of Houston Botanic Garden

Tobin's 'Romeo & Juliet' sprouts from the grounds.

Bolstered by 'Yellowstone,' Fort Worth ranks No. 25 on new list of best cities for filmmakers

That's showbiz

Taylor Sheridan continues his magic touch for Fort Worth: For the second year in a row, the city has landed a top-25 spot among the best big cities to live and work as a moviemaker.

Fort Worth repeats at No. 25 on MovieMaker Magazine's 2023 list. It is joined by four other Texas cities in the top 25: Austin (No. 12), Dallas (No. 20), Houston (No. 21), and San Antonio (No. 22).

MovieMaker compiles its annual list based on surveys, production spending, tax incentives, additional research, and personal visits whenever possible — with the notable exclusions of Los Angeles and New York:

"We don’t believe people should have to be rich or well-connected to make movies," writes MovieMaker editor Tim Molloy. "And we know plenty of people who moved to L.A. or New York with filmmaking dreams and ended up working industry-barely-adjacent jobs just to pay the bills. We think the best place to live is one you can afford — a place where you can be happy, inspired, and financially free to pursue your art."

These criteria are themes throughout the ranking: Atlanta, Georgia, took the top spot overall, followed by Vancouver, British Columbia (No. 2), and New Orleans, Louisiana (No. 3). The five Texas cities on the list all boast more affordability than Los Angeles or New York, and each one features a deeply supportive film community and various local incentives.

Fort Worth made the list for the just second year, thanks in large part to the shooting of series in the Yellowstone franchise.

"Fort Worth is the proud home of Taylor Sheridan’s upcoming Paramount+ limited series about Bass Reeves, the once-enslaved man who became a famed federal marshal," Molloy writes. "Sheridan’s Yellowstone prequel 1883 also shoots in Fort Worth, and is based in nearby Weatherford, where Sheridan owns a ranch. Fort Worth offers clear skies, easy permitting, and a vibrant film culture that includes the Lone Star Film Festival.

"The 13th-biggest city in the country also has experienced crews and a cost of living almost exactly in line with the U.S. average. While there’s no official local incentive program, the city’s very accommodating film officials work hard to offer soft incentives like deals on hotels."

Neighboring Dallas came in at No. 20, selected for its location and architecture, among other factors.

"Why choose Dallas? The city offers an online document that addresses just that question, and points to factors including its equal access to both coasts, great weather (except for some cold nights) and striking visuals, including modern and futuristic buildings that form a strikingly camera-worthy nighttime skyline," Molloy writes.

Dallas' diversity, plethora of permitting options, and cost of living also bolster its ranking.

"It’s one of the most diverse cities in the country, with a deep, experienced crew base, easily obtainable permits, and hotel deals to be had — if you’re shooting in Dallas and staying in the city’s hotels for at least 15 nights, you could qualify for up to 10 percent back on rooms," Molloy writes. "It’s a great city to work on other people’s projects so you can save enough money to create your own, and is almost exactly in line with the U.S. average cost of living. Just drive or walk its streets and it’s impossible not to notice the new construction and businesses popping up all over town, and it’s full of rising filmmakers who pitch in to do each other favors and bring one another’s projects to life."

He adds that the Dallas International Film Festival does an admirable job of showcasing must-see films, such as last year’s documentary Juneteenth: Faith and Freedom.

Elsewhere in Texas

"Texas is booming, as you’re about to see from the five Lone Star State cities on this list — all of which would be higher in our rankings if Texas offered more generous tax incentives," Molloy writes. "Still, the state is working hard to attract film and TV projects, and the signs of growth are obvious all over the state."

Austin unsurprisingly took the highest Texas spot at No. 12, scoring points beyond the obvious benefits of SXSW. MovieMaker praised smaller fests like the Austin Film Festival, as well as the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, and Austin's impressive list of filmmaker residents (Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and Terrence Malick — to name a few).

Houston placed right behind Dallas at No. 21, with MovieMaker touting its diversity and low cost of living.

San Antonio came in fourth among Texas cities at No. 22, selected for its plethora of permitting options, reinstatement of local film incentives, and growing educational opportunities such as the University of Texas at San Antonio’s new Bachelor of Fine Arts Film & Media Studies program.

New Fort Worth ghost tour showcases the spookier side of the Stockyards

Ghosts of Cowtown

A national travel company is showing off the scary side of the Fort Worth Stockyards with the launch of a brand new ghost tour.

US Ghost Adventures, an Orlando-based company that hosts ghost tours in some of the most haunted cities in the country, has just added Fort Worth to its list of tour locations. The one-hour tour is held nightly at 8 pm and includes eight stops within a one-mile walking distance.

Some of the haunted highlights from the tour include Miss Molly’s Hotel (109 W. Exchange Ave.), a former brothel where unexplained activity – think lights turning on and off, heavy breathing, and footsteps heard on the stairs – have long been documented.

The Stockyards Hotel (109 E. Exchange Ave.), built in 1904, is said to be home to the apparition of its developer, Colonel T.M. Thannisch, as well as rodeo cowboy C.D. “Junior” Colwell, who is said to have committed suicide to avoid jailtime for swindling people.

Tour participants will also visit the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame (2515 Rodeo Plaza), where it’s said the six-foot, four-inch ghost of famed actor John Wayne has been seen admiring the cowboy memorabilia on display – even with a museum dedicated solely to him located just steps way at John Wayne: An American Experience.

While other ghost tours exist in Fort Worth, US Ghost Adventures owner Lance Zaal says his tour specializes in storytelling.

“US Ghost Adventures offers EMF detectors and focuses on telling the history behind the hauntings,” says Zaal.

When paranormal activity takes places, theories suggest electromagnetic disturbances can be seen with electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors. Lights on the detector indicate the strength of the disturbances, with a green light meaning little to no activity, yellow meaning moderate activity, and red meaning high activity.

Fort Worth was one of 12 new cities recently added to the US Ghost Adventures roster, as well as Houston and El Paso. The company operates tours in more than 50 cities across the country, and full list of new cities include:

The tour is $25 per person and there’s a two-person minimum. There's also an option to add a 30-minute bonus tour of four additional stops for just $6 per person.

Reservations should be made in advance online, and participants should meet at the Livestock Exchange Building at 131 E. Exchange Ave.