In March 1963, John Kennedy was still alive, “From Here to Eternity” opened and the now-loathed I-35 was regarded as visionary and transformative in Austin.
On March 3, a Tuesday, just east of the interstate, Cecil Meier unlocked the door to his life’s adventure, the Carousel Lounge. As best his friend Elton Jones can recall, he was right there with Meier, who worked in sales for Butter Krust. Let’s just say Jones was the first customer in on the first day. Print the legend, as they say.
The club is still there, of course, its formerly whimsical circus aesthetic having, uh, matured into something equal parts amusing and creepy. And so is Jones. Although he hasn’t lived in the neighborhood for years, you’ll still find him there many an afternoon enjoying a cold can of Bud Light. Sometimes he’s there before Sascha Munson opens at 2:30 p.m. (Cecil used to open at 10:30 a.m.)
Meier and his wife, Myrtle, loved to dance, drink and socialize, so maybe there was a little mutual enabling going on. But in a part of town where there weren’t many bars, the Carousel filled a niche. It was a time when people dressed up as if they were going to a grand ball, and the joint was packed every night with people dancing to the Velvetones.
“They played good, sweet, huggable dancing music,” said Jones, who’s 82 now and no longer lives in the neighborhood but remains a daytime regular. “This place was packed every night. They were just building I-35. You could go to Houston, San Antonio or Dallas and the first thing people would say is, ‘Have you been to that Carousel in Austin?’ I’d say, ‘Pretty much every night.’”
Jones flipped through photo albums of people having a good time at the bar.
“I’d say 80 percent of them are gone,” he said.
As a repository for 50 years’ worth of sometimes-blurry memories, it’s impossible to talk about the contemporary Carousel without tumbling, willingly or not, down the rabbit hole of history. About the beloved Stella Boes, a longtime miniskirted presence behind the bar who kept dancing after several surgeries. About Jay Clark, who used to play piano and organ there as often as seven nights a week until bad health caught up with him. Then it was five, then three, then none. About when the tableside jukeboxes with songs by the likes of the Mills Brothers, Patsy Cline and Benny Goodman actually worked. About the occasional fight, usually over a woman. About the weddings, wedding receptions and birthday parties. About the late-night car chase that ended with one of the vehicles involved partly inside the club right where Clark had minutes before wrapped up his set. About the afternoon a woman shot and killed her husband in the parking lot after coming in and saying, “You want it in here or outside?”
It’s still beer and wine only, although they can accommodate you with a set-up if you stop at the liquor store on the corner, and U.S. legal tender is the only recognized method of payment. (In a grudging acknowledgement of progress, there’s an ATM by the door.) When Nicki Mebane took over the club after inheriting it from her dad, she and her husband, Bob, who manage a number of rental properties around town, figured it’d be easier to leave everything as it was. And so it is. Sort of.
The main change is that the owner isn’t around that much; she saw what running a bar did to her parents’ marriage and what it did was not good. They divorced in the early ‘80s. And she has a staff she can rely on. She does, however, assume the ongoing headache of booking the bands. (Disclosure: I’m in a band that’s played the place a fair number of times, and Mebane was the first booker who took a chance on us. We’re also playing their anniversary party Saturday with of Downtown Shifter and the Ugly Beats. You have been warned.)
“I kind of grew up in this,” Mebane said. “To me, it is what it is. It’s a neighborhood bar, not a meat market.”
And even though she owns the building, Mebane says the place doesn’t make much money. The drinks are cheap and it has room for only about 120 barflies.
Some of the barstools and chairs are original and have reliably cushioned the same backsides for 50 years. But like any institution that acquires the time-earned bark of respectability by simply enduring, the myth that nothing has changed since the beginning is just that. The décor, inspired by the considerably swankier Carousel Bar & Lounge at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, which opened 14 years earlier, used to include a green circus tent that the fire marshal made them take down. A large papier mache elephant on the roof succumbed to the elements and, as Jones recalls, hornets. And that wasn’t the only insult the paper pachyderm was forced to endure.
“It was quite a landmark, actually, and it was so heavy it started damaging the roof,” recalled Glenda Smith, an on-and-off bartender and waitress, now off, since 1979. “One of Cecil’s regulars said he’d take it down if he could have it. Cecil said OK. So he took the elephant down, took it out to his his ranch and used it for target practice. I thought that was terrible. Who the hell can’t hit the broad side of an elephant?
“I’m reasonably sure that person is deceased now. Everyone that used to come there is.”
Erin O’Donnell, a patron since 1983, suffering a crippling bout of nostalgia for the Stella and Jay keyday, one day told Mebane, “I’d love to work here.” She started in the spring of last year.
O’Donnell — who also has a day job with TxTag and a side gig in pyrotechnics, meaning commercial fireworks and special effects — tends bar and loves the mix of people and the diversity of the bands Mebane books.
“There’s hipsters, older people, couples there on their first date,” said O’Donnell, who’s occasionally incapable of refraining from dancing. “There’s something for everybody, so many diverse bands. there’s country, blues, rock ‘n’ roll or nights when it’s just quiet and you can have a conversation. This week I was really tired and the band played Curtis Mayfield and that’s all it took to change my day.”
Matthew Quinet has worked there six consecutive years, having left for a year. He recently quit but not before getting a whole lot of colorful experience.
“I had never even heard of it,” he said. “I answered an ad on Craigslist and the first time I stepped foot in that bar, my jaw dropped. I thought, ‘I can’t believe this place exists and I really want to work here.’ It’s my second home. I feel very comfortable there. There’s an X factor about working a bar, working in that neighborhood, which is a little sketchy. You never know who’s going to come in. There’s nothing like it. I’m a huge dive bar fan and have always sought dive bars around the country. Why not work at one of the greatest ones in Austin? I’m hooked, I guess.”
Bartender Chris Douthitt — a Princeton valedictorian and musician — has tended bar there since 2009.
“I walked in for my seven o’clock shift a while ago and the place was empty and except for two regulars and two people dancing on the dance floor. One was wearing a goat mask and the other was wearing a gas mask. And no explanation.”
Because of its borderline bizarre and shopworn decor, the place gets plenty of requests for photo shoots, including a recent one for Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis. And then there was the night someone very important to Doughitt came.
“Terrence Malick shot a scene while the Soulphonics were playing. Malick has been my favorite actor since I was a kid and he shows up with a film crew. He was with Natalie Portman and a couple of smaller names.”
So 50 years on the place is still capable of a certain magic, of creating warm and amusing memories. There it is, conveniently located next to nothing unless you’re looking for a pawn shop or foundation repair. Then again, none of us is getting any younger, either, and when Mebane retires, she plans to turn over the operation to her son, Trey Meeks. who has fond memories of washing dishes at the Carousel as a kid, tended bar there in college and even met his future wife, then also an employee.
“It’s just a legacy it has,” Meeks said. “I’d love to keep that alive.”
Was it always a dive? Those who remember the old days would say no. Is it now? Probably.
But it’s our dive.
See a video and more photos with this story online at austin360.com.
Carousel Lounge 50th anniversary weekend
When: Shows Thursday-Saturday.
Where: 1110 E. 52nd St.
Information: Plus the schedule, www.carousellounge.net