Excerpt, Chapter 2
[Following is an excerpt from Honky Tonk Debutante]
The Balls of Cowtown
The only little person I’ve ever hung out with is Verne Troyer, the 2-foot 8-inch actor who famously played Mini-Me in the Austin Powers trilogy. It was the summer before my sophomore year in college, and I was visiting my grandparents in Fort Worth, Texas, which is where my mother grew up. I had made plans to step out on the town with one of my sorority pledge sisters, who was also from Fort Worth and home for summer break.
I don’t remember my initial internal reaction when Verne Troyer walked into her parents’ family room as the group we’d collected was gearing up for a night out. This was a few years before Verne took on Hollywood. At this point he had just moved to Fort Worth and was working for Sprint Telephone in their customer service department.
Somehow, a friend of a friend had connected Verne, who really didn’t know anyone in town, with my friend’s brother, and they had become buddies. I wish I could say that at age nineteen I instinctively knew exactly how to behave around a person born with cartilage-hair hypoplasia dwarfism, but I will be the first to admit I was a tinge nervous and praying like hell that it didn’t show. I was nervous wondering how he would get around with us out in the world, nervous that I would say something accidentally offensive, nervous that a drunk stranger would say something purposely offensive. Luckily these cerebral acrobatics only lasted for a few seconds – any anxiety I felt was immediately quelled by Verne himself. From the outset he was charming, gregarious, and seemed grateful to meet the group. He was so self-assured and comfortable talking with anyone and everyone that it literally took no time at all to wash away any awkwardness from the situation.
I have no idea who thought to take one of the world’s smallest men to a monumentally massive-sized bar. This oversized club was called The Cheyenne, and with its airbrushed cowboy murals it was practically drowning in its own western-ness – not all that unusual in a city nicknamed “Cowtown”, but this place was more than just a little contrived. In the center of the rectangular nightclub that had most likely been a warehouse just a week before, there was an area my fifth grade peers in 1982 would have called a roller rink. I think it was supposed to be a kicker-style western dance floor, but when we arrived, a radio DJ was emceeing a wet t-shirt contest in the middle of it. Come to think of it, I don’t know why I say he was a radio DJ, he was probably the only assistant manager at a nearby Hooter’s with a booming voice.
Clearly Verne could have been trampled at The Cheyenne. Three intoxicated girls rushing to the bathroom would have been a virtual stampede to him – if he’d been walking on the ground. But when I think back on that night, I remember him being at eye level with us the entire time. We would take turns carrying him on our shoulders, then prop him along the edge of the roller rink dance floor so he could cheer for the wet t-shirt contest. At one point Verne asked if I would set him up on the high-top cocktail table where our group had congregated. He sat in the middle of that table top nestled among the ashtrays and the beer bottles, and I’m telling you he held court. I remember thinking, “Wow, with these people skills he really has a future in customer service!” Or he would stand on the bar, able to lean against the cash register while ordering a worldly-sized long neck. At one point a bartender snapped at Verne to get off the bar to which Verne snapped right back that he obviously couldn’t reach it without standing up there. After more verbal sparring, the management got involved and by way of an apology, not to mention compensation for his pain and suffering, Verne was invited to be a judge in the tan line competition. And just like that, a star was born. Verne Troyer became a mini celebrity at The Cheyenne that night.
I don’t know if Verne enjoyed his time in Fort Worth, as it wasn’t too many years later he would head west for bigger and brighter ambitions than the customer service career I had mentally endorsed for him. But I will say we certainly enjoyed our time with him in Fort Worth. Verne Troyer, whose measureless bravado was juxtaposed against his abbreviated height, seemed to fit naturally with a town that boasts such a history of colorful characters and countless contradictions.
Fort Worth, which is now the sixteenth largest city in the United States, was originally just a small military fort, designed to protect Texans from the Indians that had already been living on this vast frontier land. Eventually a treaty was formed, and the Indians agreed to stay west of a line that would run through the future site of the city of Fort Worth. This delineation was described as “Where the West Begins”, which remains a proud slogan for the city. I’ve also heard people refer to Fort Worth, in an unabashedly romantic tone, as “The Gateway to the West”.
During the post-Civil War era of about 1860-1890, crime, corruption, and lawlessness were rampant along the frontier plains. Most cowtowns – places where drovers, people who were driving cattle to market, could refuel their food and supplies – had a red light district generically referred to as Hell’s Half Acre. As a frequent stopover along the famed Chisholm Trail, Fort Worth had one of the most notorious Hell’s Half Acres, somewhat lazily shortened to just “The Acre”. There was a constant push-pull between The Acre and city leadership. Gunfights and murdered prostitutes nailed to the sides of outhouses were a definite blight. Attempts were made to clean things up in this rowdy area of town, but then again, legitimate businesses didn’t mind relieving cowboys of their cash and knew The Acre was the place that drew them in. The saloons and gambling establishments in this part of town would attract cowboys, buffalo traders, gamblers, and even famous outlaws like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (hence the name of Sundance Square in present day downtown Fort Worth). In 1878 the Fort Worth Democrat newspaper described the range of patrons at the dancehalls as “lewd women of all ages 16 to 40…the most respectable of citizens, the experienced thief…the ordinary murderer, the average cowboy and the ordinary young man of town.”
A veritable western stew. Sounds like my night at The Cheyenne.
It’s hard to cleanly define and compartmentalize the various types of drinking establishments of 19th century Texas and the frontier. Saloons and gambling rooms were for men only, while dancehalls, hurdy gurdy shows, and honky-tonks had both men and women. The women, of course, were not exactly upstanding would-be members of the future Junior League. These were the “soiled doves” or “lonesome doves”, nicknames for the prostitutes along the cattle trails. Other non-pay-for-sex women were there, perhaps as singers or dancers, but they were still considered women of ill repute by association. This is why, from its earliest incarnation, the term “honky-tonk” invokes a bawdy connotation, evocative of the raucous underbelly of the nightlife scene. If you read the newspaper articles from the 1800s that first mention honky-tonk in print, it would seem the term is associated with vaudeville-style variety acts that included some sort of singing and dancing, perhaps even comedy bits. It’s unclear whether the term was always a noun that described the physical venue for these wild musical shows or whether it was originally synonymous with the musical show itself. Either way, the term was ultimately interpreted to mean an adult establishment, a place for drinking and entertainment.
As vague as the term’s roots are, it seems music is at the core of its definition. Without some musical element, the establishment is merely a bar or saloon; a honky-tonk was associated with music from the beginning. (In my mind, music is the key element that continues to differentiate a honky-tonk from a bar to this very day.) In the late 1800s and early 1900s the term “honky-tonk” spread across the plains of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, all the way west into Montana, and even up into New York. Clearly the cattle drives moved more than just cows, also distributing terms and culture to areas otherwise too far to be so connected. The term “honky-tonk” had legs, most likely due to the vast reach of the cattle drives.
Given my family connection to Fort Worth, I feel a deep and genuine pride that the first mention of honky-tonk in print (in any derivative) that researchers have found so far appeared in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette. It was Thursday January 24, 1889, and it reads:
“A petition to the council is being circulated for signatures, asking that the Honky Tonk theater on Main street be reopened.”
At first, a modern eye would notice that it’s used as a proper name since “Honky Tonk” is capitalized. But given the lowercase “theater” and lowercase “street”, it appears the writer is not subscribing to our same capitalization standards. Since “Honky Tonk” is used in conjunction with the word “theater” as opposed to beer hall, dancehall, or saloon, it is some sort of musical variety show reference.
On the same page of the newspaper, a doctor’s advertisement just a few inches above the honky-tonk petition truly illustrates just how wild and corrupt cowtown life was during frontier times. At first glance below I read the word “ligation” as “litigation”, but on a second pass I realized they aren’t talking about binding contracts, but a binding surgical procedure. Perhaps this doctor’s office is strategically close to the previously mentioned honky-tonk on Main Street?
“DR. M’COY. SPECIALIST. Cures piles, fistulas, and urethral strictures without cutting or ligation. Venereal diseases, etc. Over 2000 references. Office 502 Main street, Fort Worth, Tex.”
But perhaps the most curious announcement in the January 24th 1889 edition of the Fort Worth Daily Gazette appears just before the historic honky-tonk mention:
“The grand jury have indicted fifteen women for keeping disorderly houses.”
Damn, sister! If the dangerous but inevitable allure I’m sure I would have felt from the honky-tonk theaters and saloons of The Acre didn’t destroy me back in 1889, clearly the domestic tyranny would have been my downfall. That is, unless this is code for running a brothel? In which case I’d be perfectly innocent and free to let the dishes pile up in the sink and brush crumbs right off the couch onto the floor.
Just speaking hypothetically, of course.
Fort Worth almost met its downfall in the early 1870s. A railroad was being constructed that was due to pass through the city, but when the Wall Street firm bankrolling the project failed, they stopped laying track thirty miles shy of Fort Worth. A hard winter in 1873 decimated the cattle business and added to the city’s burdens. People fled and the population dropped from 4,000 to under 1,000. One of the defectors, a lawyer named Robert E. Cowart, wrote a letter to a Dallas newspaper claiming that Fort Worth was so stark and desolate that a panther had been spotted sleeping in the middle of a downtown street. Demonstrating the unwavering confidence and fun-loving nature of its residents, Fort Worth not only brushed off the derogatory editorial, but somehow turned the slam into a positive by adopting it as a nickname for the city. It was often referred to as Pantherville or Panther City. Panther saloons began to open, a fire truck was named “The Panther”, and other businesses were adopting the title. Two panther cubs were purchased and housed at the fire hall. Even today, the city police wear a badge with a panther on top of the shield.
Meanwhile, a gutsy group of citizens, who believed the town would only survive with a railroad, set about constructing the remaining tracks. They barely finished within a state-mandated deadline, and in 1876, just a year after the panther dig in the Dallas paper, the first train entered Fort Worth. This converted the city from a mere stopover point along the cattle drives to the actual end-game for the drovers bringing heads of cattle to market. Cattle pens were built and a shipping center established. No longer just a cowtown on the Chisholm Trail, Fort Worth had just become Cowtown with a capitol “C”.
Fort Worth continued to thrive. By 1900 there were over 26,000 residents. It became clear that instead of just shipping cattle, the city could prosper from its own packing house industry. In 1902 three well known packing houses came to Fort Worth, building adjacent to the existing Stockyards and cultivating one of the greatest livestock and meatpacking industries in the country. The Livestock Exchange building was called “The Wall Street of the West”.
Quite a contrast from the rough and tumble reputation of The Acre.
In 1917 the oil boom hit north Texas, and Fort Worth was positioned right in the middle of two successful oil fields. Refineries were built and the oil business took over the lobby of the Westbrook Hotel. The people of Fort Worth were never short on personality, but now they had the money to bring the city itself to life. Culture boomed along with oil through the years between the two world wars. Fort Worth had become a metropolis within the state and hosted glamorous festivities during the summer of 1936 to celebrate the Texas Centennial.
The music scene was developing in a more sophisticated manner. Blues came to Fort Worth around 1930, about the same time a fiddler from the Panhandle named Bob Wills arrived in town. Having debuted in blackface, Bob Wills was familiar with black music and effusive about his passion for the blues. Wills famously once rode a horse fifty miles just to hear blues singer Bessie Smith. He blended the black blues style with his traditional waltzes to create a thoroughly new sound. Teaming up with Milton Brown in Fort Worth, he formed the band that would become the Light Crust Doughboys. Together they are credited with creating the musical genre of western swing.
Western swing was made for dance parties. Wills and Brown blended hillbilly sounds with blues and jazz to create a technically sophisticated musical combination – all for the purpose of getting people on the dance floor. After just two years together, Bob Wills split with Milton Brown to form his own band, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and moved his home base between Texas and Oklahoma through the years. Wills was a big band leader like Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman; in fact, Bob Wills’ shows would often draw bigger crowds. The difference was that Bob Wills led with a fiddle instead of horns.
Wills was known for his visceral “ah-hahh!” callouts while The Texas Playboys rocked it and Tommy Duncan crooned as lead vocalist. I used to assume these vocal outbursts were phonetic derivatives of the cowboys shouting, “Caa! Caa!” while herding cattle. But I was wrong. This is called field hollering, and it stems from a black blues tradition that traces back to slaves working in the fields. Field hollering is also associated with the black spiritual church tradition of call and response between preacher and congregation. By all accounts it would seem Bob Wills was preaching the crowd into a musical frenzy, and dancing was the message. Wills was reportedly so passionate and enthusiastic during a show, he would field holler and fiddle and call out to the band and work the crowd with unparalleled charisma.
Sounds intoxicating! How could you not get up and dance? I’d be swinging around those hardwoods so fast I’d have vertigo without even a sip of liquor.
In 1949 a West Texas musician named Hoyle Nix, a devotee of Bob Wills, wrote and released a song called “Big Ball’s in Cowtown”. If you’re unfamiliar with the tune, please note the placement of the apostrophe and realize it’s not as crude or bodacious as it might initially seem. Even though honky-tonk and western music regularly utilize puns and comedic elements, I don’t think in this instance Hoyle Nix was toying with a testicular double entendre. The big ball is in Cowtown…as in a big gala, a huge celebration, an epic party. It becomes even more clean when you learn that Hoyle Nix didn’t write the song from scratch, but in fact merely tweaked the lyrics and melody of an existing song called “Big Ball in Brooklyn”, performed by a popular Georgia band called The Skillet Lickers. “Big Ball in Brooklyn” went on to become a cultural gem of the old-time and bluegrass genres, while western swing took ownership of “Big Ball’s in Cowtown”. Long considered the unofficial anthem of Fort Worth, it has been covered by a cadre of who’s who in country music, including the likes of Bob Wills, George Strait, Asleep at the Wheel, and Hoyle Nix’s own son, Jody. The song fits Fort Worth like a glove; it’s western, upbeat, and celebratory. Fort Worth continues to embrace its western heritage, the people are buoyant and good natured, and this town never shies away from a good time.
My grandparents were on the scene for many of those Fort Worth parties. My grandfather was a banker in South Texas, but moved the family to Fort Worth in 1962. Fort Worth had long enjoyed a strong and progressive banking scene, dating back to the 1870s and the cattle drive era. The banking community thrived hand-in-hand with the booming cattle and oil industries. My grandfather looked like actor Gregory Peck, had deep Christian morals, and was a respected leader in the Fort Worth business community, all of which I’m sure helped my grandparents ease into the Fort Worth social scene. By this point, Fort Worth was brimming with culture, including world-class art museums and proper social organizations. The early honky-tonks, illicit dancehalls, and murderous gun fights of The Acre were a dim memory as more proper, “upstanding” citizens became keepers of the scene. My mom always says, “Fort Worth is the only town I know with a hardbound Social Directory that is used more regularly than the phone book.” It’s true. My grandmother keeps her Social Directory by the phone, alongside her monogrammed notepad and pens. She references it any time she needs to ring someone. Next to an individual’s name in the book is a complicated code that looks like hieroglyphics and indicates all of the person’s pertinent social details: sorority, social organization, civic memberships. The more letters the better, of course, sort of like the bars on a military hero’s chest.
My mother, the middle of three sisters, made her debut in Fort Worth in 1969 during her junior year of college. Most of her fellow debutantes attended Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, The University of Texas in Austin, or they dropped out for the entire fall semester in order to attend all of the parties and teas. My mother was at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, which kept her at a safe distance from having to commute home every single weekend for parties and bow practices. In her own words, the debutante scene “wasn’t exactly her thing.” That said, conflict was even less of her thing, so she went along with it. The actual deb ball was held the first weekend of November. Although she was already dating my father, also a junior at Vanderbilt, he was playing in the Vanderbilt-Tulane football game that weekend and couldn’t join her at the presentation. Given the fact that she had a fixer-upper date from the preapproved deb party list and isn’t really the sort to enjoy the spotlight on stage, my mother doesn’t exactly wax poetic of her role as debutante. She speaks of it with an insouciant tone, if at all. That said, one month after the ball, my grandparents threw her obligatory deb party, and I will say, my mother does get excited describing that event. My dad was able to come as her date, the country club was overhauled to exude a Winter Wonderland theme, and she liked her bejeweled dress with an empire waist that, in her words, was evocative of Olivia Hussey in Romeo and Juliet.
“It was a very popular look back then, Christine.”
I think my mother’s overall lack of enthusiasm signaled what was to come for the deb scene. The balls would continue, of course, but their old-world significance began to wane. The notion that a young woman needed a coming out party to present her to society was beginning to feel irrelevant after a decade of impassioned feminist messaging. Four years later when her little sister was due to make her debut, she simply put her foot down and wouldn’t have a thing to do with it. “A sign of the times,” my mother says matter-of-factly.
The charm did not fade from my grandparents’ life one bit. As a child in the 1970s I loved visiting them in Fort Worth. Completely naïve to the cattle drive heritage or honky-tonk culture of the town, I was simply playing in the equivalent of a six year old’s resort. They had a pool in the backyard where I would swim for hours on end. Their country club had silver bowls filled with mints and no one said anything about how many I could take. The golf course was across the street from their house so my cousin and I would run from one sand trap to the next, pretending we were spies trying to capture the Ayatollah Khomeini and rescue the hostages in Iran. Then I would come inside and beg my grandmother to paint my nails coral, which was the color all the beautiful women in Texas seemed to have on their nails. Strangely, my nails never looked as good as hers did. (Of course now I know it’s because my grandmother probably had her nails professionally manicured.) Her closet was fantasyland. Rows of evening gowns and shoes and purses. It wasn’t the type of grandmother closet where you would go try things on. Nothing was ever stated outright, but it was pretty clear I was to keep my paws off the threads.
Their friends were glamorous, too. My grandmother and her girlfriends were, and still are, the most elegant women I’d ever seen up close. And they were so Texas. Done-up hair, bright nails, fabulous accessories. Their friends had big ranches and private airplanes and lots of stories. There were rumors of kidnappings all the time in Fort Worth when I was a kid, friends in the banking community were always being kidnapped and tied up and ransomed. I’m telling you, it was high times in Pantherville in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
It would seem the sophisticated, moneyed culture of Fort Worth would be at odds with its western heritage and cattle drive persona, but that’s not the case. The tension between these on-the-surface polar opposites isn’t at all fractious; in fact it yields a unique kinetic energy and civic pride. The upper crust is unapologetic in claiming cowboy roots. As a city Fort Worth has always exuded a certain self-confidence, hospitality, feisty ambition, and jubilant attitude. Not one to play Mini-Me, Fort Worth doesn’t live in the shadow of Dallas, which is a mere thirty miles away. According to writer and Fort Worth historian Ann Arnold, when Dallas won the bid to host the 1936 Texas Centennial celebrations, Fort Worth civic leader, Amon Carter, proclaimed, “Let ‘em go to Dallas for education, let ‘em come to Fort Worth for entertainment.” Fort Worth has a long tradition of gumption. Plus, the people there simply know how to have a damn good time. They may have cleaned up their act since the days of The Acre, but as my mom always says, “Fort Worth was a wild town to grow up in.”
I was something of a drover myself the way I popped in and out of Fort Worth through the years, using it for my own personal pleasure. In high school I moved in with my grandparents for a month while I did an internship at the Amon Carter Museum. In college I drifted to Fort Worth occasionally and would balance my time between family and friends. One Christmas my dad took me to have custom cowboy boots made at historic Leddy’s, which has been making boots and saddles in the Fort Worth Stockyards since 1941. Before you could blink, I went from western to well-bred as I switched into a navy taffeta ball gown and attended a Fort Worth deb party. Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts played.
A few years later, after college, I found myself back in Fort Worth. Once again it was Christmastime, and once again I was clad in an evening dress. But this wasn’t another deb party, this time I was a bridesmaid in my pledge sister’s wedding.
I had forgotten about our night out with Verne Troyer four years prior and wasn’t expecting to see him at the wedding. But Verne was there, front and center for all three days of the festivities. I don’t know if he was still living in Fort Worth or if he traveled in just for this affair, but I do know he had started his career as an actor and stuntman by this point. I remember him telling us about breaking into the movie business with roles as a stunt baby. Wow, that’s a far cry from being the judge of a tan line competition in a pseudo western bar! Who could have predicted the success that was just around the corner with his Mini-Me role? But Hollywood had already made Verne more Verne as he soaked up attention and held everyone’s focus for hours. As the Thursday night party rolled on downtown to a crowded bar, I didn’t even blink an eye as I hoisted him right up onto a cocktail table. Oh it’s okay, y’all, I know what to do, we’ve hit the town together before. At the Saturday night formal wedding reception, Verne ruled the dance floor and cut a rug with every lady in the country club. While the rest of the crowd was draped in full length gowns and tuxedos, Verne was sporting all denim, and he totally owned it. Now let’s be honest, it takes pretty big cojones for an adult man to show up at a black tie wedding in Baby Gap blue jeans. But if I’ve learned anything about Fort Worth, it’s that Cowtown brings the people out to the balls and brings the balls out in people.