In the beginning, there was nobody here but us turkeys....
In the spring of 1977, 6th Street was a neighborhood with an African-American/Hispanic/Lebanese heritage whose nighttime residents were primarily artists and winos. The JJJ Tavern had been dispensing drinks and philosophy at Esther's present site since 1950.
Then, in the middle of 6th Street's 500th block, Michael Shelton and Shannon Sedwick, who already operated Austin's famed Liberty Lunch, leased an old, narrow bar at 515 (now Flamingo Cantina), throwing the first party on April Fool's Day.
The next Friday night, it turned into an improvisational free-for-all of fun with singers, poets, dancers, mimes, musicians, and comics coming in off the street to create the unique comic environment where anything and everything could happen if it brought a smile. When Michael Shelton built a stage whose back opened onto 6th Street a few weeks later, the show started swimming as artist Doug Jaques began painting a 60-by-20-foot undersea mural along the entire east wall.
Led by Doug Dyer's creative musical productions, Terry Galloway's skits, William Dente's virtuoso creation of Dame Della Diva, and an inspired energy, the first shows exploded every Friday night, with a rock & roll band that opened, followed by 2 to 3 hours of The Follies. We passed the hat with a religious-revival-like number, then folded up the chairs and danced to the band for another couple of hours. It was pure magic... and hasn't lost a bit of it charm 35 years later.
Esther's enchanting and elaborate aquatic theme - including a spectacular undersea mural, old Esther Williams' movie posters, and a bathing beauty diving into 6th Street - surfaced from an odd mix of talents.
Between bands at one of Austin's early outdoor clubs - Liberty Lunch (operated by Michael Shelton and Shannon Sedwick) - Esther's Hard Corps de Ballet put on short theatrical performances, directed by Doug Dyer, with many theatrical friends, poets, dancers, and musicians joining in. Hot as it often got at The Lunch, many performances ended with dances around lawn sprinkler in a campy tribute to aquatic-choreographer Esther Williams.
And then there were the pool tables. When the first Pool was rented on 6th Street, the old Hispanic bar was rented with the coin-operated pool tables included - they were too lucrative to take out of the deal. As the first shows quickly became packed happenings, the pool tables became the first risers for an audience using every available inch to check out the show.
But the focus that astounded audiences, many of whom returned week after week to see what new talent would hit the stage this week, was the mural by Doug Jaques painted in National Geographic detail that grew along the 60-by-20-foot east wall. Every week there was something new to discover: an old cannon, a B-52 wing, the Loch Ness monster- a stunning variety of sea life that contrasted to the boiling Street outside... and created the magical atmosphere in which anything and everything could swim in, over, around, and through.
What exactly is it that has made the magical world of Esther's Follies so bizarrely unique in musical-comedy theater for more than 35 years?
The answer is right before your eyes - before, during, and after the show. The peculiar interaction between stage and street has been a Follies hallmark since the beginning. While the first couple of weekend "shows" swam around a long wooden bar (rumored to have been a witness to the death of Sam Bass in Round Rock) and a rinky-dink upright piano set against the wall, Esther's intense performances and packed audiences soon made it soon apparent that a stage was in order.
It was a weird idea, but one that most of the bars on 6th Street now follow. When Michael Shelton backed the stage to the front of the building, and added windows, the merging of street and stage began. With 6th Street still dimly sinister after dark, the windows provided safe haven between numbers to watch the steady parade of winos, transvestites, and nightlife creep by.
At first, it was mostly the street looking in at the back side of Esther's evolving show (see the "other" side of the "I Am Texas" number from an earlier version). Then the stage, which was drawing more and more of its power from social sattire and political parody, spilled onto the street. Esther's signature finale, "Cry Me A River," started as a campy on-stage group musical number. A quick pop-up appearance of swimmers on the street one week turned into an anything-goes adventure that eventually splashed back onto the stage for the Big Finish water ballet choreography involving as many performers as possible. And 6th Street- the source of Esther's humor and unwitting backdrop for its stage- will always define Esther's distinct comedic blend of magic, music and comedy.