40 years, four generations of the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015 Austin360

In its early days, the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar was a hodgepodge collection of craft tables with a house band tucked inside the Armadillo World Headquarters, then the epicenter of Austin’s music and counterculture scene. The year was 1975. Singer songwriter Lucinda Williams pulled artists from the cold, craft market on the Drag into the warmth of the Armadillo to sell holiday trinkets.

Four decades have passed, and the Bazaar celebrates 40 years this Christmas. Now a hallmark of Austin’s holiday season, it features 10 days of artists, musicians, cocktails and food through Christmas Eve.

Its sixth location at the Palmer Events Center is large, clean and more modern than its former locations, but for those 10 days it embodies that old Austin feeling the Armadillo World Headquarters was known for, with lighted Christmas trees, house furniture and artisans selling textiles, jewelry and woodwork.

“It really does transform,” says General Manager and Associate Producer Anne Johnson about the Palmer. “I think that’s really important, to keep our roots and our culture.”

For Johnson and many other folks tied to the Armadillo, working the event has become a family holiday tradition.

Wearing a handcrafted armadillo necklace on her chest under locks of fiery red hair, Johnson looks at the floor plan for this year’s show, where 125 booths of varying sizes weave between two bars, a photo booth and a makeshift stage, which hosts 30 bands in 10 days.

Johnson is training under Executive Producer Bruce Willenzik to take the reins for the production in its coming years, and she is well-positioned in her role. Johnson has Armadillo in her blood.

Her dad, Bart Kelley, partied with Willenzik in the 1970s.

“They were just old Austin hippies together,” Johnson says.

Her mother, Cynthia, would pull her in a red Radio Flyer wagon during the winter to hand out advertisements for the Bazaar to local stores and restaurants. Until her death in 2010, her grandmother came out every year to hear the Texana Dames play. Johnson’s nieces — like Johnson herself — have been to the production every year since their birth.

Today, in a coffee shop east of Interstate 35, Johnson wears triangle-studded, faux diamond earrings in her ears, a gift her niece Eliza bought her at last year’s show. They are just one of many memoirs from her 30 years at the Bazaar, along with a tattered collection of antique dolls her parents bought her each year as a child.

Now an adult, Johnson says the feeling of the Bazaar is still entrenched in the cold air that sweeps in with the holidays. Johnson thinks about the sense of family when she curates the production, handpicking each artist carefully. An invitation to show at the Bazaar stands for life.

“There was a rumor that someone else had to die before you could get into the show,” Johnson says — acknowledging that it’s a perception that is sad but true.

Father and son Horace and Shawn Thomas have sold handbags, belts and other ornate leatherworks at the Bazaar since the 1980s. Shawn joined his dad when he was old enough to work.

Horace Thomas, who goes by “Tom,” started out peddling pieces out of rundown school bus that he parked outside the “Ol ’Dillo” in the late 1970s. It’s a name he affectionately gives the World Headquarters, which shuttered its doors in 1980.

“Bruce’s Christmas bazaar was like a wonderful new thing nobody had ever seen before,” Horace Thomas says, speaking fondly of producer Willenzik, who many consider like a father and best friend.

Thomas went to Presbyterian seminary school and started doing leatherwork after his wife, Barbara, took a sandal-making class in the 1960s. He gave up the ministry to be an artist and took out on the road with her for seven years in their bus. They sold work on the side of the highway before settling down in Central Texas in 1978. They bought a place on a bluff above Lake Belton and had their son Shawn a year later.

Shawn Thomas took over the family business when his mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, so that his dad could stay by her side. He made sure their work arrived at the Bazaar every year until her death in 2006.

“She put up a wonderful and gallant fight,” Horace Thomas says. “She’s the love of my life and continues to be to this day — the type of person who loved leatherwork and loved the life that we lived and mainly loved her kids.”

This year, the father and son have a booth just inside the foyer at the entrance of the Palmer, where they sell their handcrafted belts and bags, which they’ve refined throughout the years.

Across the convention center, country music legend Ray Wylie Hubbard will perform with his son Lucas on Saturday. It will be Lucas Hubbard’s sixth year to share the stage with his dad.

The Hubbards have made the Bazaar a part of their holiday tradition for 30 years.

Ray Wylie Hubbard says performing at the Bazaar is “like playing in your living room for friends.” It’s “a place to see old companions, all the people who aren’t dead or incarcerated from the ’60s.”

“You just get a great vibe of it,” he adds. “Austin’s a very special place — and that’s a very special gig.”

At set break, Ray Wylie Hubbard likes to walk the booths buying gifts for his wife, Judy. He remarks warmly about seeing Lucas next to him playing guitar, remembering how he looked at age 9, when he got his first guitar — a Supro — which he still has today, signed by all his favorite musicians. The plaster monsters Lucas Hubbard used to beg his mom and dad to buy him at the Bazaar every year have been lost in the currents of life, but Pat Landreth and Suzanne Montano of the Bungled Jungle still sell them there. Some small ones sell for $30, though some that are larger than life sell for hundreds of dollars.

Though artists like Landreth and Montano and the Thomases have been around for generations, few if any have weathered all 40 years. Hans Flentge was there in the beginning, selling jewelry and belts on the Drag in 1976.

“It was a year of drastic changes in my life,” says Flentge, who had just emigrated from Germany.

“Back then it was really easy,” he says. “Show up with a couple folding tables, put the cloth on it and then the leather goods. I was a beginner.”

Today, Flentge begins preparing for the show in the summertime. Sitting in the shade of a post oak tree on his 10-acre property outside Bastrop, he carves floral designs onto leather in the warm light beside his dog, Mr. Troll. He rarely comes to Austin anymore — except at Christmastime for the 10 days he spends at the Bazaar. This year will celebrate 39 years as a vendor.

“For me, that’s the biggest show of the year,” Flentge says.

For all the changes — in the bazaar, in the work, in himself — he holds a place for the show in his heart that is unchanging.

“It’s a feeling of a family that comes together once a year,” he says — delicately, nostalgically, echoing thoughts from deep within the heart of Austin.

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