The Drink/Drank/Drunk Issue: Half a Century of the Carousel
There’s a reason the Carousel Lounge is still serving locals the same drinks after 50 years. Is it 1963 or 2013? In here, it's hard to tell.
Erin O’Donnell, a sweet, girl-next-door kind of gal, is the unassuming matriarch of the Carousel Lounge. Her tall, welcoming presence – almost always found in front the antique carousel that’s been around since opening night – makes all who enter here feel right at home. The regulars at the Carousel are like family.
The Carousel’s owner, Nicki Mebane, bounces from one dimly lit table to the other, holding what appears to be a glass vase. She practices the old-school table-hopping, jar-tipping method of paying musicians. This night, she collects for the old-timey jazz band, Chaparral Dixielanders.
“Oh, hi! Just let me finish here and I’ll be right with you,” she says, hugging me without reservation. (Three minutes had passed since I walked in the door, and I already felt the comfortable urge to dance a jig and mingle with every sweet, smiling club-goer I could possibly meet in this… what, circus venue? Wait, is that an elephant behind the drummer?
It’s a vibrant, homely, down-to-earth dance club with a hint of New Orleans, P.T. Barnum, and Southern hospitality, all delicately molded together in one swingin’ lounge. This year, our gem is 50 years old. By Nicki’s recollection, the Carousel Lounge isn’t too terribly different from the day her folks opened it in 1963. Even the whole “bring your own liquor, we’ll provide the set-up” situation still reigns, just as it did when the bar opened.
“My parents loved to drink and dance,” Nicki recollects, growing slightly louder with each word, trying to be heard over the Dixielanders. Her father, Cecil Meien, spent most of his time in East Austin. Once he and his wife Myrtle experienced the Carousel Lounge in New Orleans, that was all she wrote: One of Austin’s most beloved clubs was born.
Back in those days, however, a circus tent hovered above the dance floor, seating area, and stage, and a giant, papier-mâché elephant lived on the roof. The elements had their way with it, and after five years, the elephant became too heavy for the roof to support. A smaller elephant sits at the back of the stage, doing its elephant thing for all to see.
“When you come here, you come to dance,” Nicki said. Back in the Sixties, the Carousel Lounge was home to a local swing band called the Velvetones. Lead by Jay Clark, the Velvetones standard bearers like Sinatra, Ray Charles, and Roger Miller. They stopped playing about three years into the Carousel’s opening, but Jay stayed on. Jay remained a fixture until he died in the late Nineties.
“A lot of bar stools, chairs, and tables are all original from then,” Nicki says with a strange lilt in her voice, almost as if this news had just dawned on her. “The music today is pretty eclectic. We’ve got just about everything – swing, Americana, some punk, rockabilly, Country-Western.”
Mid-way through our conversation, a faint, echoey voice from the mic says, “That was Ms. Nicki passing around the tip-jar. She sure has a great lookin’ hair-do.” Nicki shyly smiled, looked back at me, and shrugged.
When reminiscing about this iconic Austin club, Nicki feels it would be an abomination if another infamous local, Carousel Lounge star Stella Boes, was not mentioned. If her name alone doesn’t raise your brow, then her typical outfit of red, white, and blue mini-skirts on top of fishnet hoes surely will. She wore this outfit until she died in 2007 at the age of 80.
“She was just a waitress and a bartender,” Nicki says. “She was a groupie - an older band groupie. She would go see the bands, support them, and whatnot, at other venues.” National Geographic photographer Brian Lanker photographed Stella in his photo essay of American dance venues and icons, “Shall We Dance?” Stella simply loved to dance. And she loved the Carousel Lounge.
“A lot of our older day regulars have died or moved away,” Nicki says. “But we’ve always been a friend to starter bands. We’d like to see it continue. I can’t believe something like this is still here. It’s rare.”
“We wanted to honor my parents,” Nicki says. “Everybody here knows your name. The bartender knows your name, they know what you drink, the guests sit in the same seat every time, and we’re concerned if a regular doesn’t show up.”
The Carousel Lounge still aims to present live music five nights a week, and it’s closed on Sunday and Monday. Young people grace its presence every now and again, but if more came, well, that’d be all right with Ms. Nicki.
Read more stories behind the bar and deep in the jigger at austinchronicle.com/drink-drank-drunk. The Austin Chronicle's Drink Drank Drunk issue hit stands Wednesday, July 3.