Esther's Follies founders Michael Shelton and Shannon Sedwick were Austin entrepreneurs dating back to their U.T. days in the late 60s when they started one of the first campus film series. They showed rare and experimental films and got their best turnouts for the nudie flicks. They were also involved in a play called "Now the Revolution" which included full nudity. One of their first business ventures was The Tavern at 12th and Lamar. They got out of it long ago but it's still going strong. M&S started Liberty Lunch which flourished as one of Austin's finest music venues long after they left it. In 1976 or 77 there was a show at LL called "Esther Williams Hard Corp du Ballet" which was the embryo that became Esther's Follies. They found an old pool hall on 6th St. (at the current location of Flamingo Cantina), called it Esther's Pool and a show named Esther's Follies opened on April 1, 1977.
Esther's Follies became a local phenomenon. It was like Vaudeville with a contemporary twist. It was racy, drug-inspired, daring and funny. Back then, 6th St. was a run down low rent section of town where hookers roamed. The location of the first Velveeta Room was then a Latino bar. The current location of the Esther's theater was the JJJ club. The entrance to Esther's Pool was in the alley. In addition to the array of highly talented array of performers in the troupe, the brilliance of Esther's was that the stage was in the window facing 6th St. While the window enhanced the shows in numerous ways, it was also a highly effective advertising method. Esther's was probably the single most significant factor in the development of the entertainment district that Sixth Street has become.
Ever ambitious, in 1981 or 82 Michael and Shannon took a lease on the Ritz Theater, a crumbling old movie house with a colorful history. Whatever their intentions were, they mainly rented out it for various events, mostly punk rock shows since that was the only crowd which could revel in the lack of heating or AC.
In May 1983, I rented the place for a Fleischer Bros. Cartoon Festival. It was mainly for fun but it was also a benefit for the Heart of Texas Filmmakers, which I co-founded with Ray Farmer and where Richard Linklater met his collaborator and cinematographer Lee Daniel. Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black was my partner. The festival was a big success and M&S decided to revive the Ritz as a movie theater. They asked Louis to book the films, he agreed and asked me to work with him, then he backed out. And that's how I got a job with Esther's and is why I am writing this today.
The job at the Ritz was a dream come true that turned into a nightmare. But that's another story. Four months later, late at night in October 1983, I stepped outside the Ritz and saw smoke down the street. Ran over and saw Esther's Pool burning with flames thirty feet in the air. Ran back and called Shannon. We all watched the firefighters put out the blaze and viewed the smoldering ruins of Esther's Pool.
They didn't miss a beat. Two days later Esther's put on a show at the Ritz and continued there for three long difficult years. In 1987 they moved down the street to 6th and Neches for a four year run. I stayed at the Ritz to manage it as an alternative music venue. Joanne Howell had the idea to have comics open the shows and John O'Connell did his first "paid" set there. They gave up the lease at the end of the year. I went to work at the Esther's door.
There was a topless club across the street from the Ritz called the Embassy Room. It closed in February 1988. A sign in the window said "For Rent $1000." Michael Shelton, always looking for a new project, got the lease, not knowing exactly what to do with the place.
Standup comedy clubs were at a height of popularity, so that was the natural route to take. Noting the cheesy Embassy Room decor, Esther's light man Michael Procorof suggested calling it the Velveeta Room, after Kerry Awn's sleazy lounge lizard character Ronny Velveeta.
I thought it was a dumb idea to open a new club when Esther's was still so underdeveloped. They didn't even have a proper beer & wine license. Shannon asked me to be the manager/DJ and I said okay. I didn't like standup comedy, but that was because I had only seen it on TV. The club opened and I saw the comics do their stuff. Esther's Follies made me laugh but these guys and gals were even funnier. They made me LAUGH.
(the following is culled from damaged brain cells, please forgive and/or correct any errors)
The Old Velv (307 E. 6th st?) was formerly "The Embassy Room", a very low-rate titty bar. When the Velv first opened very little, if any, remodeling was done. The stage was at the 6th st. entrance facing in. It still had a runway jutting out into the crowd with a brass dancer's pole at the end. Yes, the comics had to work around the pole. The back of the room had a tiny stage and pole with a painting as a backdrop, I don't remember the painting's subject matter.
The shows featured a rotation of female stripper, comic, male stripper, comic, female stripper, comic, male stripper, comic, etc. There was a primitive rigging of ropes that ran from the bar to blinds on the 6th st windows. The blinds would be lowered when strippers performed, then raised when comics were on stage, preventing pedestrians from seeing the nudity.
The strippers were encouraged to make their performance a variety act. I remember Heather Crookshank going up in a gorilla costume then stripping down to a g-string. I think Frank Spencer stripped there also.
Audience members had to walk right by the stage to leave the club. Many comics became ruthless one-man gauntlets, berating them on their way out. People were afraid to leave. It made the New Velv's current bathroom jaunt look like a walk in the park.
In the old days you could drink on the street, so the Velv had a tiny cubicle with a window to the sidewalk and sold beer. I'm sure it was the only truly profitable thing in the club. Comics would hang on the sidewalk, drink, and bark people in. The crowds were just as brutal as they are now. If anything, they've improved at the new location. (agreed?)
We didn't have access to all the esther's props at OVR, but we would use whatever was available or bring our own. We had the occasional "going away" show, and of course the annual "Joey Waldon Going Away Show". They really weren't roasts, more of a showcase of friends with the guest of honor headlining. Ronnie Velveeta or Johnny Torrez often hosted. My first (and only) going away (to Chicago) show also served as a garage sale. I set the stage with my furniture and emceed, welcoming guest comics into my "living room" to do a set. I sold everything, most to the comics. There also was a somewhat annual festival (Austin Comedy Festival?) with competitions. Categories included funniest person, best variety act, musical act(?), and short film/video. It usually got good press and turnout was strong. The judges were pseudo-celebrities, usually Robert Faires and two comics.
When Esther's was at the Ritz (around 1986 I think) we did a spookhouse. It was one of those mazes you go through with black garbage bags serving as the walls. There were little scenarios set up at different intervals that were supposed to be scarey/humorous. I remember Joel McKean was half man/half chicken and Margaret Wiley was a giant spider body with her head. In the lobby was a cage where the comics would do standup/insults as the people went by. It went pretty good until a bunch of drunk frat guys started tearing down the walls.
And the classic story of the year the Savages played at the Ritz and we blew up a military issued smoke bomb in the building and someone thought the place was on fire and called the fire department. There were so many people on the street the fire trucks couldn't get to the Ritz and the firemen charged in the building in full gear through the crowd. When they found out there was no fire they were pissed. The next year they had everyone walking in circles one way around those barricades like they do now. I always thought that was the Uranium Savages ultimate legacy. We're the reason people walk around in circles on Halloween. Ha-Ha.
The Esther's haunted houses at the Ritz were in 85 and 86. The irony was that while the haunted house down the street was scary but very safe, the one at the Ritz was not scary but very dangerous. During construction the doors were always locked to avoid the fire inspectors. It consisted mainly of tunnels made of 2x4s covered with black plastic, with electricity from cheap extension cords spliced together running along the floor. Fortunately nothing went wrong and it was very profitable.
The great thing was that in 85 the cast was extremely enthusiastic about the project and came up with all kinds of creative ideas. It was a change from doing the usual shows. One of the first exhibits was a Lucille Ball room that Margaret Wiley set up. She made a Lucy model and a tape of Lucy saying outrageous things. Funnier than it sounds here. Further down was an operating table - Chris Bonno was either the doctor or the patient - with a ham serving as the patient's leg which was being carved and the dialogue was hilarious. Mr. Awn mentioned Mr. McKean being half man/half chicken but it seems he didn't join the cast until 1987. He did play that role in the 1989 video "The Ronny Velveeta Horror Show" which might be shown on public access again this year.
Maybe in 2002 Esther's/Velveeta should do another comical haunted house. It will be interesting to see how it is on Sixth Street this year. Opening the Velveeta Room is probably a good idea. Comics can get some stage time and if there's a terrorist attack the club could be a sancatuary.
A couple of stories about October 1983 at the Ritz. Esther's Pool, which was where the Flamingo Cantina is now, had burned down earlier that month. Michael and Shannon had the Ritz so Esther's Follies immediately moved there. That Halloween was a really wild time. In the wake of Esther's destruction, the Savage's smoke billowing from the windows on the second floor was not appreciated by the fire department. Later, Jim Franklin (note to the kids: he's an artist more important to Austin history than most mayors) did his annual Pumpkin Stomp. He stood on the awning and wrapped the electrical connections with electrical tape saying that he was afraid of electricty. I learned years later that he had previously endured electroshock treatment at a psychiatric facility, same as Roky Erikson. (Again to the kids: Mr. Erikson is a Texas psychedelic rock&roll legend). Anyway, to make a short story long, Mr. Franklin began his ritual, which was to shout "Peter Peter pumkin eater" and throw pumpkins to the crowd below. People stomped on the pumpkins then started to throw the pieces back. They smashed pieces of the non-working neon glass and it got ugly. As Mr. Awn observed, Halloween on 6th St. has never been the same since 1983.
Towards the end of the night, one of the young security guys, who was doing snuff, spit out of the top window then said to James Gibson, another young security guy, "I think I just spit on a cop." Mr. Gibson then looked out the window and was spotted by the cops. They raced up the stairs and grabbed him. Thankfully he was let go. And that, my friends, is the end of my Halloween stories. Would you like to hear the tale of the escaped convict with a hook for a hand? No? Okay.
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