The Armadillo Christmas Bazaar
(And Other Tales of the Armadillo)
Austin's eclectic environment is just the thing an artist or a musical performer needs to flourish. Austin's relationship with the artist and performer goes back a long way. In the late sixties and early seventies, street artists and musical performers would set up on the "Drag", Guadalupe Street, just west of and across the street from the University of Texas. They would be set up in front of the regular University store fronts. The bustle of students, street vendors, food carts, and musicians made for a real carnival atmosphere. Tensions began to mount between the "Drag vendors" and the regular store operators. The "legitimate" stores resented having to pay high real estate prices and taxes to operate while the street people, who had no high fixed overhead, camped in their front doors plying their trade. Eventually, the Austin City Council set up an Official Drag vendor area on one block of West 23rd Street that intersected Guadalupe Street. On one wall of a corner building that faced onto 23rd Street, a large mural was commissioned to be painted. The basic agreement was that street merchants, artists, and musicians would set up in this area and not in front of the regular business establishments. Thus, a friendly, workable compromise was reached.
Bruce Willenzik, the present Armadillo Christmas Bazaar producer and owner, was booking manager for Lucinda Williams, Mance Lipscomb, Robert Shaw and others in the early seventies. In 1974, Bruce came to Austin and was fortunate and determined enough to start work at world renown Armadillo World Headquarters, also known as "The Armadillo." The month of December was always a financially difficult month for the Armadillo to go through. The holiday season presented many competitive distractions for the Armadillo goer. The Armadillo staff was looking for an event to create positive cash flow and a way to keep the staff together during the Christmas season. Times were tough at the "Dillo."
Lucinda Williams - 1974 at Bruce's
"logcabin". Photo - © Alan Willenzik
|Bruce noticed in early '73 and '74 when he would book Lucinda to play at a club, it was hard to get an invitation for a repeat performance. Lucinda had great songs, but he thought she had not developed her stage presence. Club customers would be talking and having a good time while Lucinda was trying to make her presentation. She would sometime become distracted and upset when people were not paying attention. Bruce made a suggestion to her. He asked her to go down to the Drag merchant area on 23rd Street and play and sing with her guitar. He told her to stare at the eyes of Stephen F. Austin in the mural. These eyes were to be her audience.
Lucinda did not like this suggestion at first, but after two weeks of thinking about it, decided to give it a try. She opened her guitar case, then started playing her guitar and singing to "The Eyes." Shoppers would go by and make their transactions, but Lucinda would continue to concentrate on her obedient audience, "The Eyes." To her surprise, her guitar case would start to fill with money from the appreciative crowd. She kept playing everyday for several months at this Drag merchant area staring into the eyes of her adoring mural.
In performing outdoors, Lucinda realized that it would be nice if the vendors had a nice warm place to set up during December, one of the peak sales months for a street artist. One day at the Armadillo while Lucinda was talking to Bruce, she commented on what a nice place this would be to allow the street merchants to set up here for their Christmas season. Maybe the Armadillo could also sell its food and tee-shirts to generate some extra cash too. Bruce told Lucinda that she was a genius for that idea. Lucinda wanted to know if she could perform at the event and Bruce said, "Sure, which mural do you want to stare at?" The Armadillo's interior had plenty of murals painted on the walls for her to stare at.
This was in 1974. Bruce started working on a five year plan to develop Lucinda's idea. The staff went out and talked to the vendors and found that they would be willing to pay around ten dollars to set up inside the Armadillo during December. When Bruce presented the Christmas Armadillo Bazaar idea to management, the idea was trashed. No one thought it would work. Bruce kept the idea alive in his own mind. Both 1974 and 1975 were financially bad years for the Armadillo and 1976 was heading for another disaster. With no choice left, the Armadillo was scheduled to hold the first Christmas Bazaar on Saturday and Sunday, December 17-18, 1976. Flyers were passed out to the street artists during sunny weather promoting the event. While the sun was shining, the merchants were not as inclined to go to the Armadillo.
The day before the event was to take place, it seemed that there was little interest in the Bazaar; but, come the next day, it started to rain. About 20 artists showed up Saturday morning wanting to set up at the Armadillo. Radio advertisements were played. The event was so successful that the Bazaar was extended to December 21, 22, and 23rd. This year marks the 23rd year that the Bazaar has been held. It was held at the Armadillo for the first five years until the Armadillo closed on New Years Eve in 1980. Since 1980, Bruce has been sole owner and producer of the Bazaar. Since the Armadillo, the Bazaar has been located at three other locations. In 1995, the Bazaar's home was move to the Austin Music Hall at 3rd and Nueces. The Bazaar now hosts over 130 artists and has many musical performers singing and playing their hearts out though out the event.
Today's Bazaar is set up where a person can shop at the artist's booth or listen to the musical entertainment under one roof. Both events are happening simultaneously. I asked Mr. Willenzik how did the idea of having a musical performance go on while people shopped for their Christmas gifts. He said it just happened. During the first 5 years at the Armadillo, the sound crew would run tapes of the recorded performances of various singers and bands that had played at the Armadillo. During the third year, Marcia Ball just got up on stage and started playing. No one said she could or could not play or for how long. She performed about eight times that year. Starting then, musicians would just show up and play. In 1980, Maria Maldaur was the first performer to ask to play. She felt like this was a special year for the Bazaar because the Armadillo was going to be closed forever come December 31, 1980. Because of her performances at the Bazaar, she was invited to play the last New Year's show a few nights later. Today, the musical acts are paid competitive wages for appearing. The only thing Mr. Willenzik asks is for the performers to continue to improve their skills so that they can come back the next year. About one half of the performers have been with the Bazaar since the beginning. The performers are treated well, and in turn the Bazaar is treated to constantly improving entertainment.
This past summer Bruce attended Lucinda's record signing for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road at Waterloo Records. It had been about 10 years since they had seen each other. Lucinda asked how the Bazaar was doing. The Christmas Bazaar has turned into more than an arts and music festival. It has become a model of this community's prosperity. Within all the diversity, everyone can come together and find something they like. Everyone works together and builds on this spirt of prosperity. Yes, Lucinda, there really is an Armadillo Christmas Bazaar.
Because Bruce had worked at the Armadillo World Headquarter from 1974 to1980 until it closed, I asked him how he came to work there. It was his association with Mance Lipscomb that presented him an opportunity to start as Head Bean Cook and dishwasher. Bruce was shy about asking to work there. Previously, Mance had double pneumonia and a stroke. In order to give Mance a reason to live, he told Mance that if he pulled through this, he would give Mance "a hell-of-a-party." When Mance got better he asked, "Where is my party?" Bruce asked Mance where he wanted to have the party. Mance said he wanted to have the party at the "Urmadillo" and wanted Taj Mahal to play. Bruce did not know anyone at the Armadillo or Taj Mahal. Sure enough on May 24, 1974 Taj Mahal played a benefit for Mance Lipscomb at the Armadillo.
Bruce had left a note for a friend working at Arhoolie Records at Inner Sanctum Record Store in Austin before leaving on a trip to Mexico with his father. He had heard this friend was coming through Austin and asked him if he could set this benefit up. His friend thought it was a great idea and set the event up. When Bruce got back in town, he had a letter telling him that the event was set up. Bruce was responsible for getting Mance to the benefit.
Bruce got Mance there and it was Bruce's first time to be backstage at the Armadillo. He took Mance by the arm and lead him on stage to a standing ovation. Mance introduced the warm up act, followed by a film on Mance's life. Then Mance introduce Taj Mahal. Bruce spent several days with Taj Mahal and his brother. Bruce knew he wanted to work at the Armadillo, but had to figure out a way to ask. Bruce knew a former waitress, Sharon, at Toad Hall in Austin where he had placed Mance, Lucinda, and Kurt Van Sickle to work. Sharon was dating Guy Juke, an employees of the Armadillo. She was going to have a birthday party . She asked Bruce to cook a vegetarian dish. Bruce brought his beans to the party and a black-eyed pea dish from Mance's wife's recipe. He did not know that Sharon was also working at the Armadillo. One of the Armadillo employees that was temporarily running the Armadillo kitchen asked Bruce if he would come down tomorrow and make 10 gallons of these beans. If the customers like them, he would be hired. By noon the next day, Bruce had a job. He was amazed that finally he was at the Armadillo working.
Within a couple of weeks, Bruce was the kitchen manager. The kitchen had been losing money and was in danger of being closed down. With the help of the other employees, Bruce got the kitchen turned around in the right direction. Menus and recipes were created ; portion control was enacted. Bruce was cycled through various jobs over the years from kitchen manager, nacho counter, tee-shirt sales, to bar manager. Bruce worked very hard there, but loved working at the Armadillo. He would roll out of bed in the morning and go to the Armadillo. He did everything at the Armadillo but sleep. At night he would roll out of the Armadillo and then roll into bed. He considered all his friends and family to be at the Armadillo.
The last performance of the Armadillo was December 31, 1980, New Year's Eve. Looking at an old Armadillo poster, one can see who played there: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Asleep At The Wheel, Maria Maldaur, Truk Pipkin (an Austin magician), and Kenneth Threadgill (Father of Austin Music). As far as the staff went, Bruce was the only one sober enough to give media interviews. The last thing that happened was that all the performers got up on stage at once and played. It was suppose to be one encore number, but it went on for a couple of hours. By four in the morning, there was still 150 people in the audience. Other performers who were finishing their gigs at other Austin venues dropped by to join in. The stage was jammed.
Everyone was cleared from the place except for employees. Chairs were picked up. As soon as everyone was out, all the performers hit the stage again. They did not want to leave. Everyone was twisting and singing and having a good time. This went on until about 6:30 A.M.. At that time the bands went back to the band rooms and the box office money was taken back to the office. Sleeping on the office floor was Sonny. Sonny asked Bruce if it was over and Bruce said, "Yes Sonny, it is over." Sonny said he was going to play the piano and keep it going. About 7:15 A.M., a Statesman photographer came by and snapped a photograph of Sonny playing the piano.
Bruce said, "Nobody wanted it to be over. The last song in the encore bash was Good Night Irene. And so the last word from the stage ensemble was 'Dreams'. I'll see you in my Dreams!" Subsequently, Bruce saw the Armadillo demolished slowly in stages. It was really sad to look at. It was all that the employees had feared.
The Vulcan Gas Company, a psychedelic rock club in Austin on Congress Avenue in the late sixties, is considered by many to be the predecessor to the Armadillo. Music afficionados who collect music artifacts will pay a high premium for Vulcan posters. The Vulcan was legendary because it was the first of the psychedelic clubs in the nation. Bruce says, "that when the Armadillo came along, it kind of stole its thunder. Had there not been a Vulcan first, there would not have been an Armadillo. A lot of what the Armadillo was based on was stuff that grew together at the Vulcan. Jim Franklin living in the attic with his little art studio. His buddy Gilbert Shelton up there before Gilbert went out to San Francisco and did the Freak Brothers. The whole Rip-Off Press gang came out of the Vulcan. Its reach was pretty strong over a large, large area. It is historically significant what the Vulcan was."
Bruce considers himself fortunate to have worked at the Armadillo when he did. "You were right dead set in the middle of everything cool that was happening in the country. It was happening right where you worked." He met many famous people when he was there: Freddie King, Hot Lips of the first Mash movie, even Wally and The Beaver.
A busy guy would aptly describe Bruce. He ran through an enormous list of things he was going to have to do before, during, and after the Christmas Armadillo Bazaar. This is his ninth year as Chairman of the Arts Commission in Austin. He works on the Airport Advisory Board for Austin's new, soon to be completed airport. In closing, I told Bruce to not overwork himself over the next few weeks. He said, "I don't plan to die anytime soon. I am having too much fun. As much as it was a great job working at the Armadillo, it does not compare to how good a job it is running the Christmas Bazaar. This has got to be the best job in Austin!"
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© Copyright - 1998 - Paul Johnston