Notes about texas

February 19, 2022 permalink

RIP to the OG Alamo Drafthouse

An aerial view of the warehouse-like 409 Colorado building being demolished, multiple excavators tearing through its two stories of concrete and rebar
Photo by James Rambin.

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.”

If you’re nostalgic, now’s a good time to go read the Austin Monthly Oral History of the Alamo Drafthouse which has some great anecdotes about that space:

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.

June 16, 2014 permalink

Dennis Hopper Russian Dynamite Death Chair

[Video no longer available]

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 (!).

Dangerous Minds has the full story.

(hat tip to Caitlin Moore and John-Mike who heard the episode firsthand from Mr. Linklater at a recent Austin Film Society event)

April 25, 2014 permalink

On the Clash, Winchell’s Donuts, and 1980s Austin

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!

April 25, 2014 permalink

Today I Walked Around Near the Alamo Where on

Today, I walked around near the Alamo, where on March 6, 1836, Santa Anna’s soldiers, who greatly outnumbered the Texans behind the compound’s walls, killed or captured all those inside. Several days later, in April, the Battle of San Jacinto would swing the pendulum the other way: The Mexican army would be smashed, General Santa Anna would be captured and Texas would be born. Approximately 151 years later, The Butthole Surfers would release their Locust Abortion Technician album, giving people all over the world another reason to like Texas.

April 16, 2011 permalink

Arthouse Fissures

With the Austin Museum of Art shuttering their downtown location, the city’s crackdown on home/studio spaces on the east side, the House voting to gut the funding for the Texas Commission for the Arts, and the recent news that Art Lies is ceasing publication, what could make this a bleaker month for central Texas art?

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.

January 23, 2011 permalink

Movie Mountain

The New York Times wrote a nice mini-review for my favorite art duo Hubbard / Birchler’s latest piece, Méliès, in which the artists investigate a remote Texas prominence with the unexpected name “Movie Mountain”:

How this unprepossessing peak got its name is the subject of Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler’s beautifully made two-screen, high-definition video “Méliès.” To the sound of melancholy piano music, the 24-minute film interweaves panoramic landscapes and interviews with local people who vaguely recall that someone shot a silent movie, a western, on or near Movie Mountain early in the 20th century. No one is quite sure who made that early film, but two of the interviewees say they had relatives who were employed as extras. The artists conclude that Gaston Méliès, brother of the cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, made that lost movie around 1910 or 1911 during a stopover in Sierra Blanca while relocating to California from San Antonio. […] The meandering, understated emergence of cinematic fact and fiction is captivating to watch.

May 20, 2010 permalink

Uncanny Vallery in Richardson Texas

From the Visual Science blog, Life and Love in the Uncanny Valley:

David Hanson’s robots are by now somewhat familiar faces, including his Einstein robot currently being used as a research tool at Javier Movellan’s Machine Perception Lab at UCSD, and the punk rock conversationalist Joey Chaos. A less familiar face is that of Bina Rothblatt, the blonde at the end of the table in the above photograph. Bina is a robot commissioned by Sirius Satellite Radio inventor Martine Rothblatt to look like her beloved wife.

Hanson Robotics is in a house in the neighborhood where I grew up in Richardson, Texas. They’re doing some interesting work in robot aesthetics and materials, crafting convincing android-type replicants in a studio environment that’s busy around the clock. Flickr user steevithak has a nice photo set up of some of the robots they were tinkering with in 2009.

April 14, 2010 permalink

The Textbook Myth

The Texas Tribune posted a great article last week following up on the Texas SBoE brouhaha, outlining why ideologically-fueled edits to textbooks rarely have much effect on the actual curricula taught in schools and why Texas no longer “wags the textbook industry tail”. The concluding paragraph is a bit depressing, though:

But that’s the thing: Most history textbooks are not written by historians — self-respecting or otherwise. Foner’s book, a cohesive narrative researched and written by one scholar, is the exception. Most elementary and secondary texts are written by committees of a dozen or more writers, hired hands who don’t own their work and can’t object to any changes multiple publishing house editors make to appease whichever politicians or bureaucrats control the millions being spent. They are cooked quickly and to order, pressed together from hundreds of standards that reflect, in many ways, the lowest common denominator of thousands of opinions. They are, in short, the chicken nuggets of the literary world.

Can we get Jamie Oliver to tackle this educational malnourishment, too?

March 8, 2010 permalink

Waiting for Guffman

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.

October 29, 2009 permalink

At Home with English: Austin, Texas ESL Public Access Show

“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.

May 27, 2009 permalink

2009 Texas Star Party Time Lapse

Time lapse video of night sky as it passes over the 2009 Texas Star Party in Fort Davis, Texas. The galactic core of Milky Way is brightly displayed. Images taken with 15mm fisheye lens.

Your camera can pick up some neat things if you swap out or remove the filters that they put between the lens and the sensor…