This Old House
One of the main tenets of the interviewing process is that oftimes the best quotes occur when the tape recorder is switched off. This isn't so much the case with Mark Pratz, primary architect behind everything that Liberty Lunch has come to represent in its 24-year history as Austin's premier live music venue. Everything he says is quotable -- before, during, and after the tape starts rolling. Since the Chronicle's tribute to the West Second Street institution was conceived as a wide variety of voices fêting, recollecting, and preserving the history of Liberty Lunch, who better to give a one-person oral history of the club than the guiding force behind it?
On a warm, sunny Sunday summer morning, Pratz and his longtime partner in business/companion in life J-Net Ward, now sole owner of Liberty Lunch and every bit Pratz's equitable partner in blood, sweat, and tears, sat in their North Austin apartment, and over the course of two hours, recounted the club's long, colorful history. With little prompting from the interviewer and only a few addenda from Ward, the 47-year-old Pratz, currently an assistant principal in the Round Rock school district, delivered a clear, concise, virtual monologue summation of the Liberty Lunch saga. All he needed to begin were three words: "In the Beginning..."
Mark Pratz: In the beginning, I moved to Austin in 1973 to go to UT. From Corpus Christi. I had been wholly struck by the Beatles phenomenon in 1963 -- learned to play guitar, wanted to play in a band. All that. I was living in Victoria at the time. There were no bands in Victoria, except country bands. Moved to Corpus with my parents and went through the Sixties there. High school. I started playing in a few bands and thought, "Austin is the place to be." So I moved here, bought a guitar, lived in a big house, tried to put a band together, but was never really good enough. Went to college one semester, dropped out, wandered aimlessly -- trying to figure out what to do. Ended up teaching in a private Catholic school.
J-Net Ward: His kids from third grade come to Liberty Lunch and they go, "Mr. Pratz!" And we go, "Oh, you were one of his students." And they go, "We will always remember him, because he would always play the guitar and sing songs to teach us."
Mark: In the course of that teaching, I had a student named Chaz Tesar, and I met the Tesar family. And at some point, I heard that Charlie Tesar, his father, had bought Liberty Lunch from Michael [Shelton] and Shannon [Sedwick] at Esther's Follies. They had run it a couple of years, and decided to move down to Sixth Street. They had popped the Lunch open in 1976. They had Chef Emil [Vogely], who went on to Jeffrey's restaurant, as their cook, and they were serving food. It was just a ramshackle lumberyard. And I had been down there a couple of times just to see some bands play and thought it was a cool place. I went to him and told him I'd like to work down there. He immediately hired me as a manager.
So I played in bands, had this [teaching] job, and was booking Liberty Lunch. That was '78-'83 -- five years. That was really the big heyday of the first Liberty Lunch; every Tuesday was the Lotions, every Thursday was Beto y los Fairlanes, every weekend was either the Lotions for two nights, Beto y los Fairlanes for two nights, or Extreme Heat with the Uranium Savages thrown in. We were experimenting with other things as people came to us, but those were our big draws.
J-Net: We tried to do movies outdoors ...
Mark: We did movies, served hot dogs; we put a big screen on what was then the stage, and showed 16mm movies. We tried all kinds of crazy things to get people to come, but the only thing that was really working were the bands. We realized we just needed to concentrate on what was working. Except Charlie Tesar. Now, Charlie was a big adventurer. He had a certain vision of Liberty Lunch that never came to be. He wanted a restaurant that had waitresses -- that served food -- that had a little music on the side. He was really more into the restaurant. In spite of his vision, this place just succeeded musically.
J-Net: He would buy hanging plants and try and make it really nice.
Mark: And they would just burn up out there. Just melt. It was a desert out there. Banana trees. We must have bought nine million banana trees and planted them all along the buildings and down the mural wall. Had big barrels with banana trees in them. The club had no roof on it, so every winter we just closed the place down and had to go find other jobs. And everything froze or fried -- fell into neglect. I think we were probably paying $200 rent at the time, and the city was always going, "This is it guys. You'll be here this summer, but we're gonna do something next year." And Charlie kept going down and getting the lease renewed: "Well, we got another year."
For us, a bunch of middle-class hippies, we were making pretty decent money. But the winters were tough. So, Charlie really got into this restaurant idea. We tried fresh seafood, raw oysters, boiled crabs. The health department was in horror when they heard we were serving raw seafood. We were serving out of that little building; we had a kitchen in there. At one time, that little building that's our office had carpet, the ceiling was painted red, all kinds of curtains, and tables and chairs. People came in through those doors. But we weren't restaurateurs, and we didn't have much space. Besides, people just didn't think of us as a restaurant. We had already made our mark as the summertime place to come and hear reggae.
That era was probably the most fun, because we were so young, it was new to us, and it was really popular in Austin. People just loved it. They'd come and dance outdoors -- it was all outdoors -- and clouds of dust would rise up. You could see them from blocks away; the dust would be hanging over this place -- it was just an old gravel lumberyard. Beer was 75¢ a bottle. We did everything out of cigar boxes; we didn't know anything about sales tax. We didn't know jack about anything. Then, as the business thing came down, we got a little smarter.
Austin Chronicle: J-Net, when did you come into all of this?
J-Net: November of 1980. I went to college in Deer Park, Houston, then I went to A&M for a year. When I went to A&M, I came down and decided that Austin was where I wanted to graduate from. So I moved up here, was working, and of course the first place you go when you come to Austin is Liberty Lunch. It was really cool, but that wasn't when I met Mark or started working there. I went my way --going to school, working part time. Then a friend of mine put on a show at Liberty Lunch. I was in the show. It was embarrassing. I got offstage and noticed that the bar manager [Pratz] was a guy in my canoeing class, and I was horrified that this person would think I was that person onstage, so I started talking to him. Then we started canoeing together. That was it. I was at the right place, right time.
Mark: That year, 1980, was also a big year because they tore down the Armadillo that year. That was when Charlie decided to put a roof on Liberty Lunch. I remember, he went down and borrowed $20,000 to do it. He saw that by us closing down every winter, we were losing momentum. When emmajoe's on the Drag shut down, we took on their roster: Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith and Townes Van Zandt. And were doing well enough with it that he said, "We really need to stay open in the winter." We just kept trying to push that fall season into November. I remember us standing out there with these little heaters behind the door, just freezing. The bands would go, "We just can't play here until spring." The Lotions and Beto wouldn't play until April 15.
In 1983, the Lunch was pretty firmly entrenched when the Continental Club closed down. I had talked to Charlie about getting a small room that we could use as a feeder room for the big room, because I was seeing a need to develop local bands. We needed a room that we could run on the nights that Liberty Lunch wasn't open, and then get these bands to develop and move them over to the Lunch. He was into that idea, so I went off and blithely rented the Continental Club. And we did that from '83-'87.
J-Net: I managed Liberty Lunch for most of that time.
Mark: Meantime, we had met Louis Meyer; he was a fledgling band manager of the Killer Bees, and he was always trying to book shows through us. Then he bartended for us. At some point, when I knew my attentions were going to be split between the two clubs, he and I decided he would help book, which he started doing. So I said, "Why don't you mostly handle the Liberty Lunch thing, and I'll work on the Continental Club?" We did that for about three years, and then Louis got disinterested in it. South by Southwest had come along, and he decided to go along with that; I was offered a spot in it, but quite wisely turned it down. [Laughs]. I figured it wasn't going to work. That shows you my business acumen.
In 1987, the Continental Club was just too expensive. The rent was three times what Liberty Lunch's was; we were paying $500 a month for Liberty Lunch and $1,500 for the Continental Club. And I was running it like Liberty Lunch, because we were doing all-ages shows. The Continental did the last Minutemen show in town, and fIREHOSE. It was pre-alternative, at the cutting, cusping edge. That's when we started doing really great punk shows at Liberty Lunch. That was one of Louis Meyers' big eras; he started booking the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Flipper. It wasn't that any of us had a particularly brilliant plan to go out and create a music scene.
We had put the roof on Liberty Lunch in '80-'83 -- early Eighties -- and we lost our entire audience. The whole Beto/Lotions/Extreme Heat thing had gone on for about five years, and those bands had died. There was nothing taking their place, so we started experimenting with roadshows: Poco, Ricky Nelson, Michael Martin Murphy, B.W. Stevenson -- that kind of stuff. That was working for us. But it was different than the old days, because in the old days we hired those bands for 80/20 at the door -- no guarantees. We got all the bar, and 20% of the door. Since they were packing it, they were making tons of money and we were doing great. And now this new way of doing business, you had to give these bands guarantees. We just learned by doing, and by getting screwed enough times, how to bid a show. We did anything and everything. We were really well-known for benefits back then. Every Sunday was some form of benefit. They tended to work.
In 1987, I got out of the Continental and was booking the Lunch and teaching school -- I've taught school 12 out of the 20 years I've been at the Lunch -- and J-Net was managing the club full time.
J-Net: I was also working at Safeway. And going to school, and Magnolia Cafe South.
Mark: We invested in the new Magnolia Cafe South. We were always thinking: "It's gonna end any minute now. We need some kind of a job thing going on: an investment in Magnolia, teaching, or this, that, or the other." But the lease just kept loping, loping, loping along. That was the middle era of the Lunch: from outdoor, tropical, local band through early roadshow era, where we were picking up on anything and everything. Then the punk thing happened and we really locked in on that.
J-Net: And reggae. Punk and reggae.
Mark: Punk and reggae. We kinda maintained our old audience with the reggae, and then a lot of the kids with the punk stuff. As time went by, the reggae thing sorta faded away -- overplayed. You know, people just lost interest after a decade of listening to reggae. We had totally lost touch with our old audience. They had grown up. They had gone on with their lives.
J-Net: They started dropping their kids off.
Mark: Then the punk thing sorta faded away. But at the Continental Club, I had dabbled in the alternative deal, and that was really coming on strong then. Bands like Sonic Youth, the Replacements, the Violent Femmes playing indoors and we were selling them out. So I started filtering them into the Lunch. Local bands had been rising, like Dino Lee & the White Trash Revue were doing really well.
J-Net: And the True Believers.
Mark: True Believers, Wild Seeds, Zeitgeist. All that stuff worked great at the Continental, and did fine out at the Lunch. Some of the local reggae bands like Pressure and the Killer Bees had resurfaced and were doing well again. We were doing a real hodgepodge. Then, it was, "Maybe it's punk. Maybe this night it's an African band. Maybe this night it's reggae. Maybe this night it's blues."
As time went on, we kept getting more and more phone calls from more and more people who were willing to play us, and we kept booking bigger and bigger names until 1991 when we did Nirvana, which was probably the peak of that period. From '91 on, the alternative scene was there, and was probably more popular in a public sort of way, but it had lost that cult thing by the time it hit radio and Nirvana was playing theatres.
Then we got the new lease in '93, remodeled the place. Charlie wasn't down there much anymore. He had gotten older and it really wasn't his type of thing. He'd grown tired of it. Then an unfortunate thing happened with a girl being cut with a bottle during South by Southwest, and the whole lawsuit came down on him. Consequently, the city got embroiled in it, and the city was upset with him. All the while there was the whole undercurrent with the city that's still there: They just wanted Liberty Lunch gone. They didn't believe it was the proper thing to have on city-owned property. They always knew it was great property that should being doing more.
But they could never get around to it. Either we had great liberal councils that wouldn't vote to tear us down and would always give us another lease, saying, "We don't have anything on the burner right now," or the economy would crash, or whatever company was gonna build down there would go bankrupt, or the public wouldn't approve the bonds for a new City Hall. For some reason or other, it was like, "They're gonna tear down Liberty Lunch" would hit the papers, and a month or two later it would go away. But we always knew it was there. There's a group of people down there that was always intent on the land being developed.
When the beer bottle thing happened and the lawsuit, the building was very decrepit. Charlie had decided to quit putting money into it. It was too tentative. It was costing more and more to put money into the building. Charlie was just like, "They're gonna kick us out of here in nine months. I'm just not gonna put any more money into it." So when the city finally got sued -- in 1990, and then it took two years for it to come up -- it was time for a lease renewal, and Charlie wasn't interested in pursuing a lease. And the city wasn't interested in renewing his lease, because he had not provided some sort of insurance to indemnify the city against the suit, so he had technically broken a small part of his lease, and they were gonna hang him on it.
But we were still very much into it. Business was still pretty decent. So we went to the city and said, "Is there any way to save Liberty Lunch? Is is that you have something to do down here, or is it just that y'all are kinda angry right now?" It turned out that some people had some sympathy for the Lunch, and they went through channels and said, "Well, look. We'll take a proposal from you guys, but you're gonna have to do something major. You're gonna have to bring it up to code." When they told us that, I think they figured we could never do it. I think they thought bringing that thing up to code was impossible. We took on the challenge, wrote up a proposal, and borrowed a bunch of money, redoing the Lunch as everybody more or less knows it now.
By 1995, we finally got everything to spec -- things were great. I remember, we got our new load card on Friday, and that Sunday we opened up the paper and there were the new City Hall plans: to be built on top of Liberty Lunch. We went back to council and said, "What's going on?" And they're like, "Oh, well. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. We've seen it before." And Max [Nofziger] was still there and all kinds of people were still around [that had sympathies for the Lunch]. "If it does happen, it's still a ways off. We haven't even gotten to see who will pay for it." We had always lived in fear of that. We heard from everyone in the city, "Well, they have these plans now, and this is happening. This is gonna get built here." As it turns out, what's gonna be built there was a total surprise.
J-Net: CSC [Computer Sciences Corporation].
Mark: I think to everyone, because it went through so quickly and over so many of the normal channels that these projects go through. It just popped up one day and we went, "Huh? Whoa!" And three days later, first reading, it was passed. And that's the Watson fast track. That's the way he works, and he gets a lot of stuff done. It hit us fast and hard, but we did get a courtesy call, saying, "We are looking at this, and this is probably going to happen, so we want to talk to you guys."
J-Net: November last year, Thanksgiving, Sunday newspaper sort of thing, and when I went to work on Monday [Council Member] Jackie [Goodman's] office was calling urgently trying to set up a meeting.
Mark: By that time I had gotten out. I was back in the school business. But they have dealt with J-Net really up-front, in really good faith all the while -- never intending to do what they could have done, and what any of the previous councils could have done, and what many people wanted to do, which was just simply say, "Bye. Move out. It's our property. Hit the road." I think that Jackie and [Council Member] Daryl [Slusher], who have more or less been on that side of Austin more so than some of the more conservative council members, felt a thing for Liberty Lunch: "This is an institution."
Unfortunately, its physical place is sitting on godawful valuable land: "We've got to do something with it, and this isn't a high usage for it. This is not a great tax return for the city of Austin. There's so much land. If we build stuff around it, the noise of it is going to disrupt the type of stuff we need to build around it to get that tax base built up and get more people living downtown."
And I think Watson is an astute enough politician to know this is not a battle you want to fight because it could damage this big of a project, so it's a "Let's make peace" situation. "Let's help Liberty Lunch locate." And they have, as best they can. They've been fair and generous in the loan. It's still the opportunity for us to go hugely in debt forever to rebuild the place, but it's the only chance we have.
Chronicle: Is this the end of Liberty Lunch for you? Antone's has moved four times and it's still Antone's.
Mark: Yeah it does. And God bless that point of view. We hope that's what carries over. It's yes and no: for me, and the 20 years I've put into it -- and J-Net and the 20 years she's put in -- yeah, it's the end of the Liberty Lunch we know. Right now, no other Liberty Lunch exists. It's on paper. It's very legally embroiled in trying to get off the ground. It's a huge construction project. It's beyond our scope of understanding. It's out there, and all these pieces are there, but we can't feel it, we can't touch it, we can't book a band in it.
J-Net: It's not like you pack up and move across the street and you move into a new place.
Mark: We'll have a year downtime, which could be incredibly deadly for us. So, as far as the "real" Liberty Lunch, I think it's kind of like, if you can imagine living in a home you dearly love for 20-25 years, and all of a sudden eminent domain comes along and they say, "Man, we're going to give you a brand-new home. On Metric Boulevard: four bedroom, three bath, all air-conditioned. You won't have to put up with this messy ol' thing anymore. It's gonna be all clean and great, and you're gonna get to live there." Well, that's good. Yeah, I have another home to go to. But. It's not my old home. In that regard it's the end of the Liberty Lunch we know and love.