Pink elephants, dancing waitresses, and setups only equal one of Austin's still-hidden treasures.
Round and Round
Somewhat improbably, and with precious little fanfare, the Carousel Lounge has become one of the hippest nightspots in Austin. Scruffy rockers like Li'l Cap'n Travis, Moonlight Towers, Fivehead, and Grand Champeen have adopted the circus-themed, beer-and-setups bar as a home base of sorts -- aided no doubt by its proximity to the musician-friendly Delwood neighborhood -- while swinging veterans such as Jim Stringer and Ted Roddy continue to hold court there every week as they have for years.
As it nears its 40th anniversary next month, the Carousel's emergence as a destination venue is only the latest chapter in an illustrious history. First and foremost, it's a family business, opened by Myrtle and Cecil Meier in 1963 and inherited by daughter Nicki Mebane upon Cecil's passing in 1988. During the day, a steady stream of regulars, mostly older retirees, whiles away the hours with idle conversation and amiable arguing, the same as they've done for years.
"My parents probably knew 90 percent of the people that came here," estimates Mebane, "and they'd bring their kids here on Saturday and Sunday afternoons to play the shuffle alley. It was a real family, and it still is. The regulars that come during the day bring their kids or grandkids."
That family has always been expected to behave itself; Mebane says her parents brooked absolutely no "monkey business" whatsoever. "If a guy was hitting on a girl and she didn't want to be bothered, my dad would say, 'OK buddy, time to hit the road or leave her alone,'" she says. "Men weren't allowed to wear hats in here. They toed the line."
Nevertheless, the Carousel has seen its share of excitement and intrigue since the days it was a preferred haunt of CBS News legend and UT alumnus Walter Cronkite. One resourceful regular, for example, used to leave his lawn mower running so his wife would think he was cutting the grass while he in fact escaped to the club for a couple of hours.
One night, Mebane received a 2am phone call from her bartender telling her a high-speed car chase down Cameron Road had ended literally inside the club. And then there was the parking lot shooting. "A lady caught her husband two-timing her," relays Mebane. "She walked in the club and said, 'Meet me outside.' He went outside, and she pulled a gun on him and shot him."
Mebane, who was a sophomore in high school when her parents opened the club, confesses she didn't hang out there much -- "I didn't want my parents knowing what I was doing," she winks -- but the Carousel's familial atmosphere has endured in other ways. Like her son working his way through Southwest Texas as a bartender.
Said offspring found himself in the awkward position one night of having to tell one of the "cute UT students" on staff that the regulars had bought her one too many glasses of wine while she waited to go on duty.
"She proceeded to throw a beer at my son," recalls Mebane. "About nine months later they became engaged, and today they have a beautiful 2-year-old daughter."
The Stella Story
Twirling around the dance floor, constantly passing the tip jar, or dispensing an endless supply of goodwill, Canada-born Stella Boes has been a fixture at the Carousel since coming to work there in 1989. When not singing in church or doing volunteer work for numerous local charities, she can still be found taking her Thursday-night waitress shift and select other evenings working the door. And, always, dancing.
TCB: How did you become the dancing waitress?
Stella Boes: I have a picture here, onstage in Canada with my Ukrainian outfit on. When I was in Lee County [near Giddings], I was a dance instructor. I'm just born to dance. It's a talent given to me. I entertain the people at the Carousel free of charge.
TCB: What's your favorite dance?
SB: My favorite dance is a waltz. I can just see me with my evening gown on and my partner with a tuxedo, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I don't care if you play mariachi music. Anything you play, I can dance.
TCB: What makes the Carousel special to you?
SB: The first reason is Nicki Mebane. She's the best boss I've ever worked for. And I love the people. I love the UT students; I love all ages. They make me feel like I'm a queen.
Elephants Never Forget
Selected reflections on the Carousel from musicians who frequent the place. Somehow it always seems to come back to the elephants, the setups, and Stella.
JIM STRINGER: "There's Stella, who's my good friend. She's an inspiration. I also like the family atmosphere. The Carousel's one of two good places besides Ginny's [Little Longhorn Saloon] where management is really on the side of the band. Then there's the decor. It looks like David Lynch should be popping out of the shadows any minute."
JEFF JOHNSTON, Li'l Cap'n Travis: "It seems like because everybody brings their own liquor, they get drunker than usual. It's more like a party. The circus animals help, too. It's nice and intimate."
JOHN HUNT, Fivehead: "I had a friend from Massachusetts come down, and I stopped at the liquor store next door. He said, 'Are you getting stuff for later?' I said, 'No, I'm getting stuff for now.' He stood there for what seemed like 45 minutes saying, 'You can bring your own alcohol to the bar?' He was in heaven."
TED RODDY: "One can only wish for the days when the pink illuminated elephant stood tall above the roof. Every good bar needs a friendly face to be successful, and the Carousel has the best of all: Stella. Stella never met a stranger, and when she hits the dance floor she's an instant icebreaker. Viva Stella!"
The Carousel Lounge celebrates its 40th anniversary Saturday, Nov. 8, at 8pm, with performances by M.L. Frank and Jim Stringer's AM Band.
Now the centerpiece of the ongoing East 11th Street revitalization, the Victory Grill has played host to everyone from Billie Holiday to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Perhaps no one has a more enduring connection to the grill than crooner extraordinaire Bobby "Blue" Bland, who honed his considerable skills there while stationed at Killeen's Fort Hood. Bland returns to headline a fundraiser for the grill's upcoming face lift 8pm Sunday at the Hyatt Regency Town Lake; also on the bill are local legend Blues Boy Hubbard and talented upstart Gary Clark Jr. Tickets available at Star, Mitchie's Fine Black Art, and Waterloo Records.
These are the Breaks
Street dancers from points near and far converge on Austin during Halloween weekend for the 10th annual B-Boy City extravaganza. In the past, crews from as far away as Chicago, Miami, Paris, and Tokyo have come to see how their skills stack up against Texas units such as KAOS (Houston), Jive Turkeys (Dallas/San Antonio), and Boogie Tribe, Alien Squad, and Swing Team (all Austin). A plethora of local DJs and MCs has been likewise invited to participate. This year's events go down at the Alamo Drafthouse North, Montopolis Recreation Center, and Ruta Maya Coffee House; peep www.breakcheck.com for more details.
Eyes and Ears
Though it's not even mastered yet, advance copies of the new Flatlanders disc Wheel of Fortune (due Jan. 4) have already been sent. The trio is still very much in love with the West Texas wind.
The Austin History Center has put out a call for bands and industry folk to donate any and all related materials -- photos, press kits, fliers, etc. Bring them to the Donation Day party, 2-5pm Saturday in Wooldridge Square Park, featuring a set from the Jolly Garogers, the hardest-rocking pirate band since the Swishbucklers.
All those Harvey Pekar looking types skulking around the Continental Club's Wanda Jackson B-day celebration this weekend are probably in for the Austin Record Convention, which convenes once again 10am-6pm Saturday and Sunday at the Crockett Events Center on Highway 290 East. Admission is $4 and is good for both days.
The sleeping SXSW giant has begun to stir, with urban-music impresario L.A. Reid named as keynote speaker for the 2004 conference.
Not-so-new dance craze the Indie Rock Head Bob was much in evidence at Stubb's Built to Spill show last week. Local chiropractor appointments skyrocketed after the Idahoans' 20-minute version of "Cortez the Killer."
A raft of CD release shows this week: Friday there's the Sleepwalkers at Room 710, Li'l Cap'n Travis and Moonlight Towers at the Parish, and McLemore Avenue at Club DeVille. Saturday, the Crack Pipes have free beer and barbecue at Antone's Records, 6-8pm, and look for Deborah Dalton, 7pm Sunday, Cedar Street.
The Hole in the Wall's version of reverse Free for All psychology seems to be working, as a nearly packed room came out last Sunday to see Sheridan, 20-Eyed Dragon, and a closing jam featuring Davíd Garza and Chepo Pena on "Anarchy in the UK."
Music-biz bigwig Tommy Mottola was spotted checking out Podunk at Antone's last weekend and is reportedly interested in signing the KLBJ favorites to a management deal.