Austin Elders: Meet Doris “Sue” Bilich, Creative and Comedy Queen

Nearly seven decades of Austin memories

Courtesy of Sue Bilich

Sue wears her Star of David necklace “very openly and proudly,” she said. There is a Ukrainian flag that flies on the front porch of Sue’s house and a stained-glass Torah scroll hanging in the window. The stained-glass artwork was made by Sue’s husband, Melvin, who passed away earlier this month. The North Austin home they purchased in August of 1975 after touring 36 other houses is decorated with historical mementos and family tokens.

Sue’s story in Austin started in 1955, when she was 20 years old and wide-eyed looking at the skyline. She was in her first year at the University of Texas – which would end up being her only year – and was getting her degree in costume design. New to Austin, Sue was living in a boarding house for Jewish girls and attending college classes with boys for the first time. Sue partly attributes her short stint at the university to being overwhelmed by these new experiences and the difficulty of studying chemistry as a creatively inclined young woman.

Sue spent time with her friends at the small Jewish Student Center on campus, and her adventures on the Drag are iconic. Among them: Her first year in Austin was the same year Johnny Cash visited while on tour to debut his single “Folsom Prison Blues,” which he sang to students at the union.

At the end of her semester, Sue received a letter from her University of Texas adviser that read something along the lines of, “Maybe you oughta take a year off.” In light of this seemingly professional advice, Sue left Austin, but knew she would return when the time was right.

That right time to return to Austin came years after Melvin and Sue had met, married, and welcomed their four children. The couple was ready to settle down after Melvin left his job with the U.S Air Force, and had enrolled at UT to study architecture. While Melvin had decided to go back to school, Sue had already finished her degree at Louisiana State University. Once again, Austin represented a brave new world for Sue, and this time it included her new family.

“There was a lot of perspiring happening that day.” – Doris “Sue” Bilich

When Sue reflected on what it was like returning to Austin, she said, “I’m just going to take this street and see where it takes me.” This was not a metaphorical reflection but an explanation for how she discovered MoPac for the first time while it was still under construction. She figured that the loop would lead her to where she would need to go – north – and that she was simply following “the yellow brick road.” Sue was worried that she was not supposed to be driving on this unknown stretch of highway, as her car was the only one driving during the day. When Sue thinks about driving in Austin today, she sings to herself a line in Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” which goes, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

It would be difficult to categorize Sue’s ongoing career in Austin. Sue first became interested in acting and theatre after attending comedy coaching classes at Cap City Comedy. During her time working with the Film Commission, Sue was cast as an extra in Lonesome Dove miniseries Comanche Moon and the 1984 film Songwriter, featuring Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson – which were filmed in South Austin. While filming in the background of The Last Prostitute, Sue and cast members wore layers of Western wear on set in a saloon with the AC unit turned off. She admitted, “There was a lot of perspiring happening that day.”

The farthest that Sue traveled for an audition was to San Antonio, and it was for a much older role. She didn’t get that gig because, as she put it, “I was 40 at the time but had really good genes and looked about 20 years younger. So they told me it was going to be hard to get cast as someone’s grandma.”

Recently, Sue was working on revising her most recent short story, “The Day in the Life of an 18 Hour Bra – The Rise and Fall of a Double 'D’.” At 88 years old, Sue still has a passion for performing and enjoys writing comical skits that she will occasionally upload on YouTube. This written parody, however, is an especially unique one as the reader is taken through the perspective of the bra in question.

Of all the groups in Austin that Sue has watched expand, she is personally proud of acknowledging the growth of her Jewish community. Together, Sue and her late husband have belonged to Congregation Agudas Achim since first moving here. Sue, who once sang in jazz clubs, now enjoys singing in her choir at Congregation Beth Israel – the oldest synagogue in Austin.

Sue has a favorite saying, which is handily stitched on cloth and framed on a wall in her kitchen. The phrase is a translation of something that her parents would say in Yiddish to Sue and her brothers growing up. It’s a rhyme she hopes young Austinites will remember, in a world she fears has become too comfortable with hateful words. “Be careful of the words you say, keep them soft and sweet. You never know from day to day which ones you will have to eat.”

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