The Bullet Hole in the Butterfly Bar
This East Austin joint's a good story you could be part of
By Wayne Alan Brenner, 11:00AM, Fri. Jan. 11
There's a bullet hole in the gorgeous wooden bar between the stools and the mirror-backed, bottle-stocked shelves.
There's a bullet hole and there's a story that goes with the bullet hole, and Bonnie Cullum – artistic director of Vortex Repertory Company, owner of the multipurpose Vortex compound near where Chestnut Avenue intersects the restaurant-studded stretch of Manor Road – Bonnie Cullum is telling me that story.
"It happened in the Seventies," she says. "This bar was at The Landing on San Antonio's Riverwalk. And the story goes, there was a cat burglar who kept coming and breaking the pane of glass, opening the door and coming in and taking all the money out of the cigarette machine. So they hired a private security dude, because they were going to be closed over Christmas, and they thought it would happen again. And the security dude looked remarkably like Santa: Big fat guy, white beard, white hair. And nothing's going down, so he takes a little nap on the bandstand. And here comes the cat burglar, he's breaking into the cigarette machine, and Santa stands up, says 'Hold it right there!' – and he's got a gun. The burglar starts to run and Santa fires the gun towards the ceiling. It's a cement ceiling, and the bullet ricochets off that and goes through the bar and slices off the beer tap. The cat burglar's fainted from hearing the loud bang, he's out cold on the floor, the beer is hitting the ceiling and splashing down, and the burglar wakes up and there's Santa Claus staring down at him, holding a gun, and the beer's pouring down all over him."
That's the story – the story of the bullet hole in the bar at the Butterfly Bar, the Eastside watering hole attached to the Vortex theatre. But the Butterfly Bar has its own story, too – a much more recent one, a story that's still evolving, and we'll get to that soon enough. Right now, let's look at the bar, the impressive artifact itself. The joint's had this gorgeous wooden bar for a while – it used to belong to Cullum's father, renowned San Antonio jazz man Jim Cullum.
"This bar's over a hundred years old," says the jazz man's daughter, running a hand over its polished surface. "It's originally from Fredericksburg. It was in storage for a number of years, and then my dad got it for the original Landing, and it moved with him when he moved to the second Landing. But, at the third Landing, there wasn't enough room for it. At that point it went into storage – where it got stolen. And it was pilfered – the bar rail was removed, the mirrors were removed. And then my father made some cash deal with the guy who stole it and got it back. And he had it refurbished and had new cabinetry built for it. Musicians used to take their breaks at the end there, and there are all these burns from the musicians resting their cigarettes on the edge of the bar." Cullum points these out happily, like a mom showing her kids' drawings magnetized to a refrigerator door. "And now," she says, "finally, after years, we've got the brass rail added along the bottom and the mirrors replaced."
And it's a veritable work of art, this bar: It could make you weep for the pre-Prohibition times that you're not even old enough to have experienced.
But the place itself never really matched the magnificence of its enormous hunk of furniture. In its first years, the Butterfly Bar lounge was a sort of glorified vestibule where people would congregate on weekend nights before heading into the adjoining theatre. The space wasn't just a holding pen, no, we wouldn't be that disparaging – it was decorated with a passionate intensity, there were a few tables and chairs and whatnot, there was obvious effort to instill a welcoming sort of vibe. But it never quite gelled, really. I mean, the place was a sort of dolled-up holding pen in comparison to that superlative example of cabinetry imported from The Landing.
But that's only the first chapter of the Butterfly Bar's story.
And that chapter has ended.
You walk into the Butterfly Bar now, you're walking into a place that's worthy of its bar, a place that doesn't seem like some putative theatre-preface but more like what it is: A thriving, handsomely appointed venue all its own, with comfortable seating (inside and on the expansive wooden deck outside), and a grand piano, and silent movies screened against one wall, and –
But, you know what?
That's not my story.
That's Bonnie Cullum's story.
"The first year, we started without everything we needed," says Cullum. "So we were just sort of building it as we went, which has always been the way with this theatre. When we moved here in '94, not only was this place a dump, but the whole neighborhood, really, the only restaurants – Eastside Cafe was there, and Mi Madre's, and everything else was kind of a boarded-up, closed place. So to have all of these restaurants now, and Salvage Vanguard, and us – there's foot traffic now. When I was coming in today, there were people walking down the street between the taco places and the coffee place, everybody is just kind of out. And it wasn't that way when we moved here."
And as the neighborhood's evolved, so has the Vortex – and the Butterfly Bar.
"Right now we have just a beer and wine license," says Cullum, "but we'll be getting our liquor license in a couple of months. This year we got a beer cooler and an ice machine – these are things that have been on my wish list forever. There's a vendor who sells us our empanadas – delicious vegetarian empanadas – but we also prepare food ourselves: A Mediterranean plate, a cheese plate, a hummus plate, some desserts– it's all kind of light, noshy stuff, and the only hot dish we've been doing consistently are the empanadas. The Butterfly Bar is open seven nights a week now, from five until midnight, and it has its own clientele – it's a destination now. We've got a following in the neighborhood, people who come on foot or ride their bikes, it's not just people driving across town. A bunch of grad students from UT come here frequently – we've had two architecture school parties here. I really love the way that the bar's grown, seeing the people who come here having a great time. We've had a couple of nights where the theatre was packed and the bar was packed at the same time, and you look around and it's just like, 'Whoa, incredible!'"
And this isn't just due to the unique woodwork, of course.
"Ben Braten is the bar manager," says Cullum. "He and I get along really well, and all the bartenders who work here are friendly people. There's always two bartenders on duty. Once we go to the new liquor license, we'll have to hire some more people to help with security and cleaning. And we've got real glasses now – for years we only had plastic – so now everybody's washing the dishes."
But the growing success isn't completely due to the people, either, is it? Not even counting the serious theatrical productions of a Vortex weekend, the Butterfly Bar's got some attractions of its own ...
"We have the Thrift Set Orchestra coming in for Mondays in January. And when it's warmer out, we're doing movies out in the yard – people can bring blankets, it's pretty fun. On Tuesday nights, we're doing trivia contests – which has been very successful, it has a bunch of regular teams. Wednesday's kind of our flex day, and now we're gonna have improv, with The Pie and Ear Show. And we've got DJ AyBee, who's a KOOP deejay, and he comes in usually every Wednesday night at 10:30 and does a funk kind of mix. And Thursday through Sunday, we've usually got shows in the theatre, but we might book in some happy-hour music or even something after the main show, depending what goes onstage. And Naked Girls Reading are taking one of our weekend dark nights, a Saturday in March. And we've got free wi-fi all the time."
So. Perfect, now?
Evolution complete and the Butterfly Bar's story at a point of comfortable stasis?
No, there's always something to be improved upon.
"We'd like to have a food trailer out in the yard," says Cullum. "We haven't found a compatible one yet, because I don't want it to be just another burger joint or taco joint. It needs to have enough vegetarian options and gluten-free options, it has to be the right kind of food. We really want Indian food or Asian food, or something like that, because there isn't anything like that on Manor Road. I've got a space set aside for it, we've got enough electricity for it, so if we found a compatible vendor – to me, that would make the compound complete. And I think people in the neighborhood, even people not coming to a show or the bar, they'd probably come and get take-out."
But people will come to a show or to the bar, too.
They'll come and grab a drink, spend some time among their friends and neighbors in this once and presently storied place of camaraderie and entertainment.
They'll come and create – and take away – a few stories of their own.