The Velveeta Room Legend
Arnold Charles "Ronnie" Velveeta was born July 9, 1937 in Billings, Montana, the son of Paul and Amelia Velveeta.
The youngest of nine siblings, Arnold was a precocious lad, which garnered him the lifelong nickname, "Ronnie."
He graduated from Morton High School in 1955 and, having been snubbed in the school yearbook as "class clown,"
set off to prove them all wrong. Ronnie knew he was funnier than Frank Daniels.
After a two year stint in the Coast Guard, Ronnie headed straight for the mecca of live comedy, Las Vegas,and quickly
proved his stuff. In just five months, he went from opening for strippers at the Marquee to headlining at the Sands.
Ronnie Velveeta was destined for the heights of stardom. Movie moguls approached him with multi-million
dollar multi-picture deals. But Ronnie had a gambling problem and was chased out of Vegas by the mob.
He landed in Tuscon, Arizona in 1961 and opened his first night club, The Velveeta Room.
The club became the talk of the town, as Ronnie brought in all the best comedians of the day,
from Red Skelton to Lenny Bruce.
By 1963, there were Velveeta Rooms in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Dallas and New Orleans.
Among the innovations at the clubs was the Go Go Laughers, bikini-clad girls in cages who
laughed and wriggled at the comedians' jokes.
Ronnie Velveeta was an acquaintance of Jack Ruby but there is no indication that Ronnie
was involved in the JFK assassination as some conspiracy theorists have alleged. Ronnie
loved the Kennedys. He even offered Jack a spot at any of his clubs as early as 1959, but
the senator then president never replied to Ronnie's telegrams.
The Velveeta empire continued to grow throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with 39 Velveeta Rooms
in 14 states and three countries. A series of bad investments led to the demise of all but
a handful of Velveeta Rooms. By 1987, only the Hong Kong Velveeta Room remained.
In 1988, Ronnie partnered with Michael Shelton and Shannon Sedwick of Esther's Follies to open
a Velveeta Room in Austin, Texas. It has been a rough and tumble enterprise over the years and
today it is marginally successful. Ronnie Velveeta is happily married to his sixth wife, Samantha,
and they enjoy life at their Lake Tahoe residence.
The Hong Kong Velveeta Room continues to flourish.
The True Story
Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton met in 1969 at the University of Texas in Austin. They were freshmen participating in a controversial play called "Now the Revolution." They began a long and productive relationship which included opening the Velveeta Room in 1988.
Michael and Shannon went on to run the Tavern for a couple of years. It's still there at 12th and Lamar. They started Liberty Lunch and, after they left, it went on to become a legendary music venue. While they were running Liberty Lunch, some of the most innovative theatre artists in Austin got together and put on a show called "Esther Williams Hard Core du Ballet." It was a hit and led to the idea of doing a new kind of Vaudeville. Michael and Shannon got the lease on a place at 515 E. 6th. It was pool hall so they called it Esther's Pool and started a comedy show called Esther's Follies. The entrance was in the alley and the stage backdrop was the window on Sixth Street.
Esther's Follies began on April 1, 1977 as kind of a talent show but it evolved into something new and exciting. It was edgy and vibrant. The venue burned down in October 1983. Esther's moved to the Ritz Theater for a few rough years then moved to Sixth and Neches in Feb. 1987.
The Embassy Room was a topless bar at 317 E. 6th St. It was sleazy, it was the last chance for a "gentlemen's club" on the street before city ordinances made such places illegal in the area. The Embassy Room closed down and there was a big handmade sign in the window, "For Rent - $1000 a month."
Michael Shelton couldn't resist. He took the lease without knowing exactly what he would do with the place.
It was 1988. Standup comedy was thriving at clubs across the nation.
Kerry Awn suggested calling the new club The Velveeta Room after his sleazy Vegas lounge lizard character Ronnie Velveeta. The decision was made to start a stand up comedy club like no other.
Shannon called and asked me to be the manager/deejay at the new club. I reluctantly agreed. I had just moved from managing the Ritz as an alternative music club to managing the box office at Esther's. I thought starting a new club was a bad idea. I didn't like stand up comedy because I had only seen it on TV and Esther's needed lot's of improvements. But I took the job.
The Velveeta Room opened in March 1988. I quickly saw that there was a vibrant stand-up comedy scene in Austin. It was a revelation. The comics were brilliant and made me laugh loudly. Best of all, there was a community of comic friends who were dedicated to making people laugh and having good times together.
Kerry Awn, John O'Connell, Russ Forbus, Margaret Wiley, Russell Hebert, Jana Williams, Peter the Adequate, Nancy Reed, Mike Emody, Christi Evans, Joey Waldon, Vanessa Kaufman, Brian Malow and a whole lot more people were having fun and learning to live.
The original Velveeta Room had a fantastic décor thanks to the Embassy Room. There was the stage, a runway with a stripper pole. The stage soon got cut back for the comics. There were fanatastic mirrors that ran the length of the room, and even better was the DJ booth. Two turntables and controls for the chase lights that ran the lengths of the mirrors. Every comic who took the stage got flashing lights along the mirrors and music that fit him or her.
When the Velveeta Room first opened, we had late night after-hours illegal parties often. There were recreational substances, there was music, great conversations and much laughter.
Thursday nights were Open Mike at the Velveeta Room. At Steamboat a block away, Rotel and the Hot Tomatoes, a 1960s-type girl group, played on Thursdays. After open mike we shut down the Velv then went to Steamboat and danced the night away. Life should always be so good.
Russell Hebert, an outstanding young comic on the scene, was hired to manage the club in April and presided over some wild times and raucously hilarious shows. In September, fresh new comic Nancy Reed got the jobs of booking the club and serving as house emcee. Russell won the Funniest Person in Austin Contest in 1993 and Nancy won it in 1994.
The Velveeta Room has always struggled along in a jolly kind of way. Comics enjoyed the sparse audiences because it helped them learn to make any audience laugh. Nobody ever got famous after playing the Velveeta Room, well a few people did, but the main thing is that everyone always had a good time.
Beau Bahan was the first door guy/barker at the club. He became manager in 1991 and made the club rock! The best jazz musicians backed up the best comics. The Cheese Pistols improv troupe played on Wednesdays.
Sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights, we'd have what was called a "third show." After the main show ended and the audience was gone, comics would entertain each other by going on stage to improvise. Improv has never been funnier or more fun.
The shows at the original Velveeta Room were hit or miss when judged by audience response. Viewed objectively, every show was a hit.
The camaraderie was very good. People became friends. Comics got funnier. Friendships started that will always be.
- Austin Jernigan
Coming soon: "The Beau Bahan Years, 1991-94"