Another iconic Austin location bites the dust to make way for a new downtown tower: this time it’s the warehouse between 4th and 5th Streets on Colorado, which in the late 1990s became the upstairs home of the very first Alamo Drafthouse with its tiny single screen. Elijah Wood perfectly described it like being “somewhere between a movie theater, an attic, and a living room.”
Elle Klein: Tim had lined the walls of the theater with hay bales. They were covered with black curtains … There was the wall, then hay bales, then a black curtain. There would constantly be hay coming out on the floor. We would sweep up hay at the end of the night.
Yup. Who needs special acoustic panels for soundproofing when you can just stuff the walls with hay??
There have been serious problems caused by the Drafthouse leadership over the past decade, even as they continue to open dozens of locations around the U.S., but I do miss the spirit of that first little theater and the amazing movies and community experiences that I would never have seen otherwise.
In 1983, immediately after screening his new film Out of the Blue at Rice University, Dennis Hopper invited the attendees out to a racetrack outside city limits by way of school bus where they could watch the actor sit in a chair ringed by dynamite and witness him explode — or hopefully not, if the trick he called the “Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act” is pulled off successfully…
In attendance for the explosive, not-entirely-sober stunt: Wim Wenders (presumably in the vicinity while filming Paris, Texas?), Terry Southern (screenwriter: Dr. Strangelove, Casino Royale, Easy Rider), and a 22-year-old Sam Houston State student named Richard Linklater (!).
My mind was somewhat blown when I discovered that the Clash filmed the video for Rock the Casbah here in Austin, TX back in 1981 (go watch it, it’s on YouTube). It became a trivia game amongst my office of long-time Austinites to try to identify all of the various shots in the video, most of which are at businesses and hangouts long gone (you’ll see the original Posse at 24th & Guadalupe, the Alamo Hotel, the Burger King on the Drag, the gas station across from Oat Willie’s on 29th, the old City Coliseum music venue, etc.).
Before I go into the long Austin-nerd story below, I learned a couple of other amazing things about this video via this great read:
The director of photography was Barry Sonnenfeld, who would later go on to film Raising Arizona, When Harry Met Sally, and direct the Men in Black trilogy and The Addams Family.
The “Sheik” and the “Orthodox Jew” characters were played by amateur actors. The two of them hung out with Barry Sonnenfeld that night at the Liberty Lunch, and met a couple of young dudes in town scouting for a location for their first feature film: Ethan and Joel Coen!
Now onto the deeper trivia investigation…
One long-standing mystery was the quick shot of the armadillo traipsing in front of a Winchell’s Donuts (a chain that hasn’t been seen here in decades). I came back to this recently and asked for help from Twitter and Facebook friends, and the best clue came from this excellent post from Troy Dillinger about the early days of MTV-era punk rock, Joe Ely, and the Clash. That post cites the location as S. Congress & Oltorf, so I jumped over to Google Street View to confirm, and lo and behold I think I’ve found the shot, documented with the photo below.
But then controversy: multiple people wrote to me to say “no no, it was South Lamar and Barton Skyway!” or “I remember going to that place, it was on Duval near UT, close to the Posse East”. This kind of gnawing uncertainty has a way of festering in my trivia-addled mind, so I needed to confirm for sure. Also, my officemates were now even more perplexed.
I work across the street from the Briscoe Center for American History, which conveniently has phone books for many Texas cities dating back to the early 1900s. Disguised as a researcher, I had them pull the Austin phone books for 1979–1983, and I looked up Winchell’s Donuts. Only three locations were listed, none on South Congress or Lamar or even the implausible Duval. What the heck, yo.
Thankfully, my boss earlier pointed out the red DRUGS sign on the building in the background (early subliminal messaging in a music video?? ;). We couldn’t read the blurry hexagonal sign just behind the Winchell’s, but this drugstore sign was a great clue. The 1980s phone books listed a Revco Drugs at 2301 S. Congress, exactly the address where I took this Street View shot. The logo looks right, if you can imagine what the 1980s stylized version would be, with the outsized script R. Also, Revco was purchased in the late 1990s by CVS, which exists at that location today, and to my eyes it looks like they just swapped logos on the hexagonal sign.
Further evidence: another shot in the Clash video was filmed outside a Victorian-style house, which is now a Wells Fargo bank right across the street from this Congress & Oltorf location.
Hat tip to one Daniel Lugo for pointing out the identical 3 poles and fire hydrant, and to everyone else who wrote to share links or other anecdotes about 1980s Austin!
UPDATE October, 2015:
I’ve heard from a number of nice people with personal connections to this location and even with this video shoot, but a reader just now pointed out that I got so caught up on the Revco detail that I neglected to mention where the stupid Winchell’s Donuts was exactly!
That reader speculates that the location is where the Subway currently is (2315 S Congress Ave), and I believe that’s true. The double-poled Subway sign is likely yet another clue / confirmation. Unless you know otherwise!
Been having fun playing with Google Map’s Quest feature, creating some lo-fi Austin scenes. I’m sorry to say that this is likely a Google April Fools’ joke, as I kind of like poking around places as though they were background scenes from a forgotten third-tier Sierra adventure. I’ve posted a handful of Austin 8Bit pics on Flickr — what other locations would be good choices?
Arthouse, the 100-year-old Austin-based organization I’ve been proud to support since the days when it was still called the Texas Fine Arts Association, is beginning to show signs of fracture, despite their beautiful new façade. You can get the bigger story over at Austin360 if you’ve missed it in the news, but to summarize: exhibited art has been mishandled and censored, their admired and successful curator was fired abruptly (possibly after having written a letter of concern to the director about the above-mentioned mishandling), and some of their prominent board members and staff members have resigned in protest. There’s also a growing collective voice of concern by the artists who were to be contributing work to the upcoming 5×7 fundraising show (myself included). So far, apart from short responses directly to inquiring reporters, I don’t believe that Arthouse has issued a statement on the matter, which isn’t especially good PR in my humble opinion.
Eric Zimmerman has a nice summary of the concerns on his cablegram blog:
No one would argue against a new building, or at very least a renovation. But when you dump truckloads of cash into a designer building and neglect to budget for a curator, the person who puts the actual art in the Arthouse, there seems to be some serious priority issues. I said it before, a building is nice and all, but what you show in that building is where the rubber meets the road. I’d love to see art organizations forgo the starchitect buldings and put money into paying artists, curators, and their staff instead.
For the curatorial angle (or perhaps, the “lack of curator”), you might be interested in Wendy Vogel’s take over on …might be good.
Here’s to hoping that Arthouse can steer itself back on track as the leading space for contemporary art in Austin.
Waiting for Guffman. A lot of folks don’t seem to know that this one was filmed in Austin and Lockhart, TX, so there’s that bit of trivia for you. There are also some very quick cameos by David Cross, Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill Murray’s older brother), and in a very obscure part as the guy mouth-juggling ping pong balls, Turk Pipkin.
Parker Posey grilling a single chicken wing is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen committed to film.
“At Home with English”, a fabulous early 1990’s low-budget ESL public access TV course filmed here in Austin, TX, dredged up by the Found Footage Festival. A truly exemplary bit of late-night public access weirdness. I’ve been mentioning this guy to friends for years, always hoping to catch it on so I could tape it. Glad someone’s found a copy, and they’ve even tracked down the star for an interview! This highlight reel’s pretty good, but it’s edited down considerably: each segment was made all the more absurd because they would go over each of the verb tenses repeatedly using the same odd inflection, interspersed with a super-macro-closeup shot of a woman’s lips reciting the vocabulary.
“Harriot regularly corresponded with friends who were also trying out telescopes. One wrote to him saying that the full moon ‘appears like a tarte that my cooke made me the last week’.”
— A note from the “Cosmos and Culture: how astronomy has shaped our world” exhibit at London’s Science Museum, describing this first-ever drawing through a telescope, created circa 1610 by English mathematician Thomas Harriot.
Note to Austinites: the excellent Harry Ransom Center at UT will soon be opening their exhibit “Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works”, featuring some beautiful drawings by the likes of Cassini, Kepler, and Brahe. Can’t wait.