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By Christopher Gray, April 13, 2007, Music

Puttin' on the Ritz

When the Alamo Drafthouse moves into the Ritz building in August, its Music Mondays will roost in the balcony. "I like that it will be more intimate," says programmer Kier-La Janisse. "It allows you to be a little crazier with the programming when you have half the seats to fill."

Improved lighting and sound will also allow for more live-music tie-ins downstairs, Janisse adds. Though nothing has been signed, or even suggested, one potential tie-in might be Roky Erickson; Palm Pictures releases Kevin McAlester's Erickson documentary, You're Gonna Miss Me, on DVD July 10. It wouldn't be the first time music and movies have coexisted at the Depression-era theatre.

When Armadillo World Headquarters poster artist Jim Franklin and late partner Bill Livengood reopened the dormant Ritz in 1974, Monday nights were as dead then as they are now, so they showed old cowboy movies and booked bands to warm up. "We had Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel," recalls Franklin. "Some stellar talent."

Original owner Elmo Hegman couldn't afford top-shelf names like Gene Autry (who appeared instead at the Paramount), so he booked vaudeville-trained B-stars like Tex Ritter, Gabby Hayes, and Max Terhune, who could toss a playing card from the stage to the balcony. (State law back then mandated separate entrances for white and black patrons, which is why the staircase to the balcony opens to the outside.) Ritter was fond of asking the people in the balcony, "How are y'all doing up there on the shelf?"

Bookings during Franklin's tenure included Bukka White – who told Franklin he played a National steel guitar because, "I tear up a wood guitar" – the Weather Report, and Chuck Mangione.

"It was a great room for sit-down music," Franklin muses.

For his first-ever Austin show, Bo Diddley fronted a pickup band including Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall Sr., and Paul Ray. Diddley planned to play about 10 minutes and take a break. "He said, 'I'll wear these guys out,'" recalls Franklin. "I said, 'I don't think you'll wear these guys out, but you're the boss.'

"He was pleasantly surprised."

After about a year, Franklin tired of people only calling to ask about bookings, not his artwork, so he and Livengood decided to close down. Their last show was none other than Townes Van Zandt. "He said, 'This is about the fifth theatre we've closed,'" Franklin laughs. "He was getting all these bum gigs."

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