Urban Cowboy
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THE HIDDEN STORY BEHIND
URBAN COWBOY

Written by Rick Archer
June 20
10

 


GILLEY'S SALOON

Gilley's was a fabled saloon that was the focal point of Pasadena nightlife during the Seventies and Eighties. In its heyday, Gilley's was the largest nightclub in the world. Featuring local bands and singers like Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee, Gilley's was the honky-tonk that served as the inspiration for Urban Cowboy

Sad to say, Gilley's is no longer with us. It burned down in an arson fire in 1989 after a falling out between Mickey Gilley and Sherwood Cryer, the co-owners.  However, back when the movie was filming, this saloon became just as much a part of Texas lore as JR Ewing and the Dallas series that coincidentally was burning up the TV ratings at the same time. 

At first glance, a casual visitor would have a hard time figuring out why the place was so popular. With its 6,000 person capacity and corrugated roof, the building looked more like an airplane hanger than a dance club.  Due to its drab interior, a near-total absence of color and its cold concrete floor, the club was tough on the eyes.  Gilley's was sometimes described as the "ugliest dance club in America".

The restrooms were dirty and the parking lot was full of potholes.  Not only was the place unattractive, it was uncomfortable.  Even Mickey Gilley admitted the place was a complete dive. "It was filthy," he said. "When it rained, there was water in there. Try dancing in mud puddles.  When it got cold, it was cold in there.  When it got hot, it was hot in there. Sherwood Cryer made the club bigger, but he didn't make it better."

Gilley's was a very rough place. This rundown club was known for plenty of fighting.   It was no surprise the clientele preferred the "Outlaw Country" sound because there were a lot of angry people who considered this place their personal fighting ring.  On any given Saturday, you might see more brawls than your average ice hockey match.  One regular said, "With all the lowlifes who come in and drink themselves silly, if they don't get into at least one scrap, they think their weekend is wasted."

Sherwood Cryer was once asked about the BIGGEST free-for-all he had ever witnessed in his place.  One time a teacher's (!) convention had come to Houston. On a Saturday night a busload of teachers, men and women from all parts of the country, had shown up to take in the Gilley's experience. Like everyone else, they were curious as the club's fame was beginning to soar. They all went to sit in one of the corners of the cavernous club.  Thanks to those bratty kids, teachers must have a lot of frustration to let go of. Pretty soon they began to have too much fun.  These teachers got liquored up and began to fight, first with each other.  Then they took on the regulars!  Uh oh.

Cryer sent over two, then four, then eventually every bouncer and large patron he could find in an attempt to restore order, but these drunken teachers ended up beating the crap out of every bouncer and wannabee bouncer in that melee. 

Finally Cryer had to call in the Pasadena Police and the EMTs. The Pasadena Police arrived in force with their riot helmets on and brandishing serious-looking batons.  When the schoolteachers found themselves being surrounded by these officers, they reacted by attacking the cops (!) as well!  Eventually many of these rowdy educators were hauled off to jail.  Afterwards, to Cryer's dismay, the cops shut down the club for the rest of the night.

Nevertheless, despite its frequent fighting and dilapidated appearance,
there were plenty of people willing to overlook the club's shortcomings. From the moment the movie started filming, Gilley's began to rival the Eiffel Tower as a must-see tourist attraction. 

Every night hundreds of regulars
showed up to drink, dance, fight, flirt, make out, bullshit, shoot pool, and see who would get their nuts cracked on El Toro, the club's famed mechanical bull.  Bob Claypool of the Houston Post wrote: "Gilley's was, quite simply, the most Texan of them all, the biggest, brawlingest, loudest, dancingest, craziest joint of its kind ever."

Sources:  
Mother of All Honky-Tonks
by Christopher Gray
Closing Time : Gilley's Sherwood Cryer by Carlos Carbillo
Looking for Love by Gregory Curtis

 


CULTURAL TRENDS

There is a natural desire in every human being to feel popular and attractive.  There is a lot riding on popularity. 

'Popularity' can mean power, security, attractive mates, interesting jobs, and the chance to hang out in the most influential circles of life.  Popularity means friends. The more friends you have, the more opportunities there will be.

We all want popularity, but where do we find it and how do we get it?  American Business is very interested in controlling the keys to popularity.  If a business can control popularity, it is guaranteed marketplace success.

Through the use of cultural icons like movie stars, rock stars, and media - both print and broadcast - the advertising geniuses on Madison Avenue do everything in their power to manipulate 'popularity'.  It is their job to convince the world the products they sell hold the true key to popularity.

 


So the question we have to ask is this:  How on earth did a complete dump like Gilley's ever become the national symbol for popularity? 

The purpose of this chapter is to explore the answers to this very intriguing question. 

 

NEW YORK CITY

If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere,
It's up to you, New York, New York.

Our story begins in New York, long considered the nation's center of culture.  New York City has been the birthplace for many cultural movements.  As an example, did you know that American Jazz largely got its start in New York City?  For that matter, so did Charleston, Swing Dancing and the Lindy Hop.  We call it "East Coast Swing" because New York City is where Swing developed.

If you want to make something 'popular', the place to start would be NYC.  New York City is home to Wall Street, the New York Times, national magazines, book publishing, and all the major networks. 

Over time, New York has become America's nerve center for all things cultural. It is the absolute best place to be anytime you want to "start spreading the news".

FASHION AND ADVERTISING

Not surprisingly, the Madison Avenue advertising industry and the Garment District fashion industry are also located in New York.  These two powerhouse industries are so closely interconnected, it sometimes becomes difficult to tell them apart.  One creates the product and the other sells the product, but neither could be effective without the other.  Fashion and Advertising work hand in hand.

As you might imagine, no single industry is more interested in exploiting 'popularity' than the fashion industry. The same can be said for advertising.

Due to my near-total lack of fashion sophistication, I never thought the day would come when I would be called upon to comment on fashion, but I think I understand the basic concepts well enough to make my point.

For one thing, I realize that "fashion" is part of the eternal struggle to be noticed in a crowded world. Like the peacock who struts his colors, people have used clothing as a way to draw attention since the beginning of time.  I also realize that "beauty" is in the eye of the beholder". 

That said, I have always believed the Fashion Industry has a serious uphill struggle to overcome.  Over the years, I have occasionally visited upscale clothing stores and taken a peek at what is considered fashionable.  A practical man at heart, I typically shake my head in consternation.  Much of what I see is so ugly!   I think to myself, "Who on earth would ever buy this stuff?"

Over the years, I admit I have followed the dictates of fashion now and then. I remember buying bell bottoms even though I cringed a little.  And I wore some of those questionable Disco outfits during the heyday.  However, it wasn't until the Urban Cowboy era came along that I finally found my niche... oh boy, blue jeans are in!  A committed blue jeans kind of guy, once I realized my existing wardrobe would last forever with proper care, that was the day Madison Avenue and the Fashion Industry lost their hold on me.

As the years passed, not only did my love affair with blue jeans continued unabated, but my daughter grew up to become a teenager complete with opinions and the willingness to offer them.  One day my daughter casually pointed out I would never be considered 'fashionable' wearing those same boring clothes all the time.  That was the moment I realized that Madison Avenue had gotten inside of her head.

I laughed and reminded her that Marie Antoinette, the leading fashion symbol of her time, had lost her head.  Marie's excellent fashion sense was counter-balanced by her lack of common sense.  Fashion can only take you so far.

Maybe so, my daughter replied, but the most popular girls at her high school were also the best-dressed... surely that was more than mere coincidence.  I smiled.  I knew where this was headed.  My daughter was about to hit me up for money for clothes.

This is exactly why Madison Avenue is so obsessed with the youth culture.  Old people like me might care less about being popular and wearing the latest styles, but the young and impressionable are fair game.  They still have mates to find, jobs to obtain, and things to accomplish. 

Madison Avenue had done its job on my daughter.  She and the rest of our nation's youth were convinced the elusive goal called 'popularity' was something worth pursuing.  All the kids had to do was figure out how to be popular and their life would be set.

No problem.  Madison Avenue promised it would be right there to tell them which products were sure to make them "the most popular".  At the very top of that list would be the "In Clothes" of the day, the clothes that only the best people wear... for example, the kids who are popular.


Anybody can sell warm clothes to a shivering man.  But it takes a real genius to sell impractical clothing of dubious attractiveness that no one needs. 

The secret of selling stuff that no one needs is to convince people that buying a product will magically make them "popular"
.

Advertising people are paid enormous sums of money to
figure out ways to get ordinary people to pay hard-earned cash to buy clothing others might consider 'worthless'.

Code words for 'popularity' begin to creep into our language. New Look. Cool. Hip. Happening. Chic. Edgy. Trendy. Emerging. Changing. Fad. Rad. Hot. Funky. Stylish.  et cetera et cetera.

If the Madmen could just find some way get the public to bite on these words, they might be able to sell a product that has proven difficult to move.  Wear something Stylish enough and you too can become a hip hop happening popularity machine.

So what does this all have to do with Gilley's?  Be patient. 

It isn't easy explaining how Gilley's became the national symbol for popularity.

 

TREND SPOTTERS

Trend Spotters are very shrewd people who make it their business to identify cultural trends in their early stages in order to take advantage of the momentum.  These people are constantly on the prowl for any possible angle that will help them sell more clothes that no one needs.

Once upon a time, fashion designers used their instincts to predict what the public would buy.  Unfortunately, this approach had its shortcomings.  Every wrong guess left manufacturers with a lot of unsold clothing on their hands.  An example from my youth were the "Nehru jackets".  I remember every teenager laughing their heads of.  That item became an expensive gamble that failed.

Every mistake was so costly - not just in money, but in reputation as well - that the fashion designers began to seek ways to cover their bet. They began to rely on market research to make their tough process of guessing what would sell a little easier. 

Along the way, even the experts had to admit that "predicting what might become cool" wasn't very easy.  

Wouldn't their jobs would be easier if they could simply dictate to the American public what was cool?
  When it came to manipulating the American zeitgeist, why leave anything to chance? 

After all, it is so much easier to make money when you already know what is coming next.

All they had to do was find something that was absolutely certain to become the next best thing.  Then one day it happened... by some miracle they found The Next Sure Thing... Everybody agreed it couldn't miss.

Take a guess.

Gilley's
!!! 

It has long been rumored that many of the cultural trends that affect the entire nation are orchestrated behind the scenes by some very shrewd people in the Big Apple.

Thanks to the powerful presence of Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and the New York print and broadcast media, there are forces at work in New York that are unrivaled anywhere else in the country.  Why bother guessing what the next cultural trend will be when all you have to do is go out and create it yourself!

This story will explain this process in detail.  All the experts agreed - with just a little help from Madison Avenue, Gilley's was going to be the absolute next best thing.

 

CLAY FELKER, The Ultimate Trend Spotter

It all started with Clay Felker.

Clay Felker was the legendary editor of New York Magazine and later Esquire who knew everybody in the business: media, politics, theater, Hollywood, you name it. 

Intimately connected to the pulse of America, Clay Felker was one of the most influential journalists of his time. In addition to his work at New York Magazine, he helped found the The Village Voice as well as Gloria Steinem's Ms Magazine. 

Felker was once quoted in his Duke Magazine profile about how California—like New York—was prime territory for trend-spotting. Felker said, "Journalism is very often about the future."

This was a fitting observation from someone who time and again practiced what he preached.  Felker would see something that was ready to happen, then do something to make sure it actually did happen. 

Clay Felker made it his business to be the spark that lit the bonfire.

As a magazine editor, early in his career, Felker made his reputation by telling it like it is without regard for negative backlash. He was willing to step on toes.  As one example, Felker published the first account of how the mega-wattage of newspaper, magazine, and television coverage, abetted by the PR resources of the fashion industry, had created an entirely new kind of New York socialite.

Society people take their status seriously, especially "New York" Society people.  Previously New York's Society people had traced their importance to money and their Protestant family lineage.  The nerve of that upstart Felker to embarrass New York's power elite like that!

His article not only angered the Old Money establishment no end, it thrilled the up and comers no end as well.  They liked being noticed.  Best of all, it amused all the New Yorkers as much as any story in ages.  Maybe those pompous old crows who thought they were so special weren't as popular as they believed!

Felker defined the form of the modern city magazine.  Felker was a "writer's editor". He encouraged his writers to address modern life in a bold, vividly descriptive style. Felker didn't just sit back and wait for stories to land on his desk.  Felker's keen eye resulted in many powerful stories about life in the big city. The ultimate "trend spotter", Felker made it his business to notice something interesting, then go find a writer to poke his nose into it. 

For example, Felker suggested to reporter Gail Sheehy (later his wife) that she investigate prostitution in New York, but perhaps from an unusual angle.  Sheehy didn't just get out her notepad and do interviews.  Instead she followed Felker's idea and took to the streets wearing hot pants, white vinyl boots and a revealing top.  Adding in puffed up hair and too much makeup, the disguise worked perfectly.  Gail Sheehy was able to mingle with the “working girls” and get some straight talk.  What she brought back to Felker at his magazine was an astonishing eyewitness account of the trade.

Soon Felker's magazine was on the tip of everyone's tongue.  What would Felker print next?

Gail Sheehy wasn't the only writer who benefitted from Felker's vision.  Clay Felker's ideas helped many writers become established. Tom Wolfe, the best-selling author, was one of his first superstars.

Wolfe turned a Felker suggestion into The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a fascinating book on the counter-culture that was a favorite of mine back in college.  Tom Wolfe went on to become one of America's best-selling authors with books like Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff to his credit.

Despite his success, Wolfe never forgot who his mentor was.  In a 1993 interview with The Washington Post, Tom Wolfe called Clay Felker "the greatest idea man that ever existed". 
 

Sources:
Felkerism
, by Kurt Andersen
A City Built of Clay, by Tom Wolfe

 

LIGHTNING STRIKES ONCE

In 1975, Nik Cohn, a writer for Felker's New York Magazine, penned a story about a world of lower-middle-class, lower-IQ youths who lived in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx in the mid-1970s.  These kids lived for Saturday nights in disco clubs.

Titled
"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night", Cohn's story was published in June 1976.  This article served as the source material for the movie Saturday Night Fever which debuted in November 1977.

As it turned out, Clay Felker, then editor of New York Magazine, was the inspiration behind the story.  However, Felker did not sell the movie or make any money off of it.

The man behind the movie version was Robert Stigwood, a music producer and the manager of the music group Bee Gees.  Robert Stigwood had a three-film contract with John Travolta. He parlayed his Travolta/Bee Gee connection into a film with Paramount Pictures.


Robert Stigwood got his start mainly as the manager of the famous Rock band Cream starring Eric Clapton.  He parlayed his success in the music industry into productions both stage and film.  Among his stage credits are
Evita, Hair, Pippin, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Sweeney Todd Among Stigwood's film credits are Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, and Saturday Night Fever. 

As you can see, Stigwood was no stranger to success.

Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees said this in the Observer Music Monthly January 2008:

"The idea for the film that became Saturday Night Fever started when our manager, Robert Stigwood, saw an article in New York magazine titled 'Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night' by Nik Cohn.  The article talked about teenagers going to dancing competitions.

When they first started dance rehearsals for the film with John Travolta, they were using our song 'You Should Be Dancing,' which had been released the previous year.  

We were mixing a live album in France. Robert rang me up and said the song was great.  Then he asked if we had any other songs we could contribute.

So we got to work.  In the end we had five new tracks - 'Staying Alive,' 'How Deep is Your Love?,' 'Night Fever,' 'More Than a Woman' and 'If I Can't Have You' (recorded by Yvonne Elliman) - plus the previously released 'Jive Talkin" and 'You Should Be Dancing.' Seven songs total.

It was also our idea to call the movie Saturday Night Fever, because the competitions were on Saturday and we already had the track on the music album 'Night Fever.' 

Disco was primarily an urban subculture phenomenon found in the big cities.  Disco had been around for several years before Saturday Night Fever came out though it operated just beneath the radar of mainstream America.  Oddly enough, in 1977 when the movie debuted, many people in the music industry believed that Disco with its uncreative electronic music and vapid lyrics was on its way out.  However, the movie changed their minds in a hurry!

So why was Saturday Night Fever so popular?  While most people only remember the dancing and the catchy Bee Gees music, many forget that Saturday Night Fever had an excellent script with richly drawn characters.

The irony is that the story that inspired the script turned out to be a complete fake!  Nineteen years later in 1996, Nik Cohn confessed that he made the characters up from his own imagination.  Rumor has it he based his main characters on a Disco-version of "Rebel Without a Cause".  John Travolta as James Dean.  Too funny.  Whatever his Muse, it worked.  

No one had expected much from Paramount’s scrappy low-budget disco movie, but this hard-hitting story of directionless youth with Travolta as the dancing James Dean packed quite a punch.  Saturday Night Fever struck a chord with audiences all over the world.  The movie became a box office and pop cultural phenomenon.  It also sold a lot of records.

 

LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE

In September 1978, an article titled "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy and America's Search for True Grit" appeared in Esquire Magazine

Aaron Latham told a story about a world of lower-middle-class, lower-IQ youths in Pasadena, Texas, in the mid-1970s who lived for Saturday nights in country-western joints.  Does that tagline sound vaguely familiar?

From the moment the article appeared, there seemed to be striking parallels between Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy

Indeed, look at the headline on Esquire Magazine. The two movies were linked right from the start.  This was no coincidence.  The man behind this new story was none other than Clay Felker, now the editor of Esquire.

Aaron Latham was a hip Washington DC resident married to long-time 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl.  Although Latham was born in West Texas, he had been based on the East Coast for most of his adult life.  As it turned out, Aaron Latham had never even heard of Gilley's and didn't know a thing about the place.  So what got him interested?  Clay Felker.


In the summer of 1978, Latham was awakened at 3 am in the wee hours of the morning by a long-distance phone call.  It was Clay Felker calling from a hotel room in Houston, Texas.  Felker told Latham to hop on a plane and visit Gilley's Nightclub in Pasadena immediately.

At Felker's urging, Aaron Latham took the next flight out of Dulles.  Latham had been told to introduce himself to Sherwood Cryer, co-owner of Gilley's. As the two men walked around the club, Cryer advised the New York-based writer on various angles for the Esquire article. 

Sherwood Cryer had a big smile on his face.  Cryer didn't mind walking this stranger through the cavernous paths of Gilley's one bit.  Cryer had a strong hunch this story was going to put Gilley's on the map.  And where did he get this hunch from?  Clay Felker.  Felker had taken Cryer into his confidence the previous night and shared a couple of very interesting secrets. 

Gregory Curtis, Texas Monthly:  

"In 1978 Clay Felker was the editor of Esquire. Our publisher Mike Levy and my predecessor as editor Bill Broyles invited him to Houston that summer to speak at the Rice University Publishing Program.  Instead of an honorarium, Felker wanted to be shown around the famous boomtown.  So they ended up at Gilley’s late one night.

At Texas Monthly, we had discussed writing about Gilley’s but hadn’t done it. One of the aggravations of journalism is that you can be so familiar with something that you miss a story that is right in front of your face. That was what we did with Gilley’s, and after twenty years maybe we now can admit it.

Felker saw the mechanical bull and the cowboys dancing with a beer bottle in their back pockets and their girlfriend’s thumbs hooked in their belt loops. He was so struck by the place that back in his hotel room late that night, he called writer Aaron Latham. 

Latham had been born and raised in Spur, Texas, but was then living in Washington, D.C.  Felker told him to get out of bed and catch the first airplane to Houston."

Steve Brill, The American Lawyer:

"Clay would come in at New York Magazine at 10:30 a.m. after a long breakfast.  He would invariably have four ideas and three of them you’d have to talk him down from the ceiling on. However, that fourth idea was usually great.

One morning, Felker says to Aaron Latham, “Hey, I just heard about this nightclub in Brooklyn; they dance and they compete so that they can make it big in Manhattan.”  Aaron says, “I don’t want to do some story in Brooklyn.”  Some other guy there at the mag who just started was Nik Cohn, and he says, “I’ll do it.” And that became Saturday Night Fever.

Cut to two years later: Clay comes in from breakfast again and says, “I just heard this story about a weird place in Texas where they get on this electric bronco.” Aaron Latham had learned his lesson.  This time Aaron says, “I’ll do that!”

And that became Urban Cowboy.
"
 

During his tour of the club, Aaron Latham met some interesting Gilley's regulars including the colorful operator of the mechanical bull. This guy was quite a character.  The bull operator somehow managed to talk Latham into trying to ride the mechanical bull.  Latham deserves some credit. It took some real guts to get up there.  Beginners were sure to be thrown. 

Latham was quickly thrown off... and immediately hooked.  That bull would become the star of his story.  Latham hung around Gilley's for a month, interviewing everyone in sight and riding the bull (and getting hurt nearly every time)


Back in those days,
Pasadena was nicknamed "Stinkadena" for the oil refineries and paper plants that brought the area its jobs. Early on,
Latham decided his story would center around Pasadena petrochemical plant employees who escaped the monotony of their jobs by playing cowboy after hours over at Gilley’s.   Of course the bravest of the bunch liked to prove their 'cowboyness' by riding the mechanical bull.

The bull was a good place to start, but it wasn't enough.  Latham was
searching for a love story.  Then one night, he found what he was looking for. "This girl came in named Betty Helmer, and she rode the bull standing up," Latham said.  It turned out that Betty was a better bull rider than her husband Dew, a guy she had met at Gilley's. Dew was so mad at his wife for showing him up, he forbade her to ride the bull anymore.  In retaliation, Betty starting flirting with the mechanical bull operator! 

Latham was thrilled by this soap opera-style nonsense. Now he had a real live love triangle to write about!  

A few months after the Esquire article came out, Latham was hard at work writing the movie script to Urban Cowboy.  That is when Latham discovered the guy who ran the bull was actually an escaped convict on the lam.  Latham was astonished.  The same man who had first got Latham hooked on riding the bull had actually been a convict hiding in plain sight over at Gilley's!

Every night hundreds of people would walk right past this guy without a clue in the world as to his dark secret.  Latham had been fooled just like everyone else.

In retrospect, it made perfect sense to hide there in this vast indoor badlands.  Spending his nights seducing Betty Helmer and any other woman who caught his eye, the convict fit right in.  This stuff even was better than his own imagination!  It read just like a twisted plot twist from a Fugitive episode.  A writer couldn't ask for more. Gilley's was the gift that just kept on giving.

Once Latham got over his shock, he delightedly added this precious nugget to his movie script. The Bull Operator was no longer just the third wheel in the love triangle.  He was now the full-fledged bad guy of the movie.

Shakespeare had Much Ado about Nothing.  Latham would have Much Bull about Bull.  Modern times call for Modern phrases.

The question is:
Why was this Gilley's story so urgent to Clay Felker?

Why would Clay Felker wake a guy up in Washington in the middle of the night, tell him to get his sleepy butt to the airport, and hop the first plane to Texas just to go see Gilley's

I mean, really now, what's the hurry?  Couldn't it have waited a day or two?  Gilley's ain't goin' nowhere.

The reason Felker was so excited about Gilley's during his visit to Houston is now apparent - Felker had just discovered the opening he needed to make the next Saturday Night Fever

This is what Felker had been waiting for.  Felker was about to make his score.  He didn't want to waste a single second.
 

Aaron Latham, writer:

"Felker knew exactly what he was doing.  Soon after the tale was published, sure enough, Hollywood came calling for the rights, which eventually went to Paramount Pictures.  Work began in December 1978, just two months after my story was published in Esquire.

So many people wanted to buy it that I was able to get first crack at writing the script. Before long, I was taking transcontinental flights to that cruel city (Hollywood) that had abused the talents of Fitzgerald and Faulkner (but was nice to me)."
 

THE FINAL PIECE TO THE PUZZLE

Clay Felker passed away in 2008.  Here is an item from his obituary:

"For several years, Clay Felker was a consultant to 20th Century Fox, which transformed several stories he had edited, most notably "Saturday Night Fever" (1977) and "Urban Cowboy" (1980), into movies."

Saturday Night Fever was a Felker inspiration that Robert Stigwood had stumbled onto and capitalized on.  Felker helped Stigwood turn the story into a movie, but didn't receive much credit.  Although Felker was involved in the project from the start, he was reduced to a footnote in the Saturday Night Fever project. 

Burn me once, shame on you, burn me twice, shame on me.

Felker kicked himself no end for letting Stigwood get most of the credit... and money... for this prize that had been his idea in the beginning.  Felker paid attention and took notes.

Felker was going to make damn sure he would be the one to capitalize on the next project.  Like the Holy Grail, Felker immediately began the search for the next Saturday Night Fever.  And once he found it, he got the wheels rolling pronto.

Urban Cowboy was fast-tracked from the moment Felker walked into Gilley's.

   

THE GREAT URBAN COWBOY MYSTERY

Let's say you dabble in the stock market.  You are an average guy who does the best you can to stay abreast of the trends.  Suddenly one of your stocks makes a huge jump that catches you completely flat-footed.  Although you benefit from the unexpected fortune, later you hear through the grapevine that some fat cat on Wall Street bought plenty of shares and made an even bigger killing. 

So you sit back and wonder to yourself, "How the heck did he know that was going to happen?"  If you are like me, you assume it is another case of insider trading. 

Rich people... and I am talking the 'very rich' here... always seem to know stuff before the average guy. They use that advance knowledge to anticipate developments and cash in.  The advantage always goes to the person who gets there first.

In the case of Urban Cowboy, four different industries got rich - the movie industry, the country music industry, the western wear industry, and Houston's local nightclubs.  Did I say 'rich'?  Change that.  I meant to say 'very rich'. 

Were they lucky?  Did they have crystal balls? 

Or was there some remote chance everyone knew something in advance?


As I go through life, I see myself as a little tiki raft buffeted about by the giant forces of the Pacific Ocean.  But I do have a brain.  Although I hardly consider myself to be an investigative reporter, it doesn't take much of an effort to connect the dots here.


It becomes obvious that Clay Felker was intimately connected with every part of Urban Cowboy from start to finish.  Furthermore, now that we see that Felker was also involved with Saturday Night Fever, the coincidence of John Travolta being involved in both projects no longer seems like much of a coincidence. 

Travolta was incredibly popular thanks to SNF and Grease. Based on the success of the Saturday Night Fever project, now that Travolta was committed to the new movie, it probably didn't take much to convince the music people and the fashion people there was a coming gold mine that everyone could have a stake in. That, my friends, is called 'Marketing 101'. 

Saturday Night Fever
was a surprise hit to everyone involved.  However, Urban Cowboy would not be a surprise.  It was a pure sequel to a box office monster.


This new movie
was the closest thing to stimulus-response the "trend spotters" had ever seen. Everyone was so sure the new movie would be a success that they rushed to get in on the ground floor. Their advance knowledge of this project was open license to print money.

Thanks to the coordinated effort by the fashion industry, the music industry, and the movie industry, the country's amazing preoccupation with Urban Cowboy began long before the movie debuted.

And now everyone's 'preoccupation' with Urban Cowboy begins to make a lot more sense.  I have no doubt the amazing cultural trend towards all things Western was manipulated by little unseen hands from start to finish.  They were pushing our buttons before we ever knew what hit us.

Too bad no one let me in on the secret.  All those bizarre overnight changes had me just as confused as everyone else on the street. In Spring 1979, one Disco after another shut down in Houston only to reopen two weeks later as a Western Club.  All these changes were taking place an entire year before the movie even opened.  What did these club owners know that I didn't know?  And now we have our answer. They had advance knowledge of the coming trend, that's what.

There I was, the little tiki raft buffeted about by the rapid changes taking place in Houston at the time.  As I watched my beloved Disco Dancing die a horrible premature death, I was not only devastated, I was utterly flabbergasted.  It made no sense...


 
WESTERN MUSIC

The story line from Urban Cowboy was about as deep as a bottle of Bud Light and as predictable as a straight line.  If not for the presence of John Travolta, then the hottest movie star on the planet, no one would have paid much attention.  Fortunately, Travolta added enough Hollywood glamour to draw attention to the movie.  The pre-release hype and hoopla was extraordinary.

The
soundtrack album became the real money-maker of Urban Cowboy. The soundtrack was released in April 1980 four months ahead of the movie.  Thanks to all the fuss surrounding the movie, everyone was so curious, they went out and bought the album.  By the time the movie debuted in July 1980, the soundtrack was already Number One.  The movie had sold the soundtrack which in turn helped sell the movie.  Pretty clever, huh!? 

Since the soundtrack featured the new 'progressive' country sound, it literally changed the direction of country music throughout the Eighties.  The Outlaw Sound with Waylon, Willie and Merle was out; Neil Young and The Eagles were in.  Country music became associated with crossover songs like "Heart of Gold", "Lyin' Eyes" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling".  This new sound featured singers who could actually sing harmonies as well as gifted musicians who introduced more complex rhythms.  Some people even suspected a Disco-influence in the new music.  God forbid.


This music breakthrough allowed new artists like George Strait, Randy Travis and Reba McEntire to move to the forefront.  Labeled 'country pop' by many, the music produced by these artists worked like a charm. It was a lot easier on the ears of ordinary people like me who couldn't stand twang or hard core western music.  Now a whole new world of western music fans developed.

 

WESTERN FASHION

Throughout the first seven months of 1980, Houston got itself wrapped into a tizzy over the debut of Urban Cowboy.  One of the major harbingers of the movie's debut was the radical change in women's clothing. 

I was no fashion expert, but as my world turned upside down, I could see someone in the design industry obviously had the brilliant idea to push fancy western wear well before the movie's debut. 

What a coincidence!  How did these people know 'western fashion' - previously an oxymoron to the fashion industry - would suddenly have an audience?  That was quite a prediction!  Ralph Lauren and Gloria Vanderbilt of all people were suddenly hot names in western wear. They were obviously in on the big "Urban Cowboy" secret.

Some of the outfits that began to appear in public bordered on the preposterous.  Take the lady in the picture on the right.  When was the last time you saw a woman dressed like that out on the prairie rounding up cattle?  Exactly. 

Yet that picture is a perfect example of what you might see at Cowboy, the dance club in Houston where all the pretty girls went to make their western fashion statements. 

Pretentious?  Definitely.  Fun to look at?  Definitely.

The "Cowboy Look" benefitted dramatically from the resurgence in the popularity of country music.  This new 'cowboy look' incorporated some Hollywood glitz mixed with rhinestones, Southwestern Hispanic and Native American styles such as silver and turquoise, as well as fashionable dresses complete with Indian designs.  The jeans became tighter, the shirts louder, and hats took on the same personalized importance of boots.  Western accessories such as jewelry, fancy boots, and expensive hats became an obsession with people concerned about Western style... and Houston had plenty of those.

As country music became more popular, huge Western clothing super-stores opened throughout America dedicated solely to supplying the fashion needs of country music's (and country dancing's) new devotees.  It was quite the boom time. When it came to Western Wear, someone was making a killing.

The icons of Western fashion were no longer found in the movies. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were out.  Now attractive, clean-cut country music stars like George Strait and Reba McEntire became the measure for the new cowboy look.

The music people fed the fashion people and vice versa.  You don't suppose the same people owned both businesses, do you?

The new 'Cowboy Look' no longer focused on the Western hero, but rather was aimed at the American worker who gets duded-up to play on the weekend.  And where do you suppose they got that idea?  You can thank Urban Cowboy.


Throughout 1980 people were going nuts over the clothes.  People were going nuts over the music.  Here in Houston, people's imaginations ran wild. I was incredulous.  They didn't even know if the movie was going to be a hit or not.

All that fuss and the entire time no one had any idea the movie would turn out to be so vapid. Sometimes 'not knowing' is a good thing.  It allowed all the hype to continue to build without a reality check. 

This was going to be the biggest thing to hit Houston since the Astrodome!  As the famed designer Oscar de la Renta succinctly put it, "Thanks heavens Texas women love clothes.  They are a beacon of what is wonderful about America." 

 

WHO KILLED DISCO?

The absurdity of the all the Discos changing to Country in the spring of 1979 was that Disco was raging hot in Houston in 1979.  There was absolutely no sign of a drop-off in interest.

So why on earth would Discos doing great business suddenly take a gamble on Kicker Dancing in expensive parts of town?  This format had never been successful before.

What most people do not realize is that Western Dancing DID NOT EXIST in Houston before Urban Cowboy came along.  There was some very small kicker clubs on the edge of the city, but not one major dance club had 'western dancing' as its theme.

A dozen dance clubs were making money hand over fist with Disco, and yet this same dozen clubs were willing to trade in a sure thing for an unknown product.  The Disco crowd was stunned.  Why?  No one in my group had ever been Western dancing in our lives.  We all looked at each other and went 'huh?'   It was utterly incomprehensible. 

On the surface, it didn't make any business sense whatsoever.  None of us could figure it out.  We didn't have the slightest idea what was going on, but we all suspected it must have something to do with Urban Cowboy.   There was nothing else that could remotely explain this strange mystery.

 


When the movie finally did come out, one of the scenes had Travolta taking his rich new girl friend to élan for a night of disco dancing.  élan was the most elegant Disco in Houston.  When I recognized élan in the movie, a dark smile crossed my face. How interesting.

I used to go dancing at élan all the time. 

In fact, I blamed the owner of élan for the murder of Disco.  He was the Prime Suspect!

 
élan

élan was home to Houston's rich and famous.  It was the place you went to see celebrities.  I was dancing there one night with my girlfriend Victoria.  Victoria screamed when she spotted Bill Blass, the famous designer, dining on one of the lower levels as we walked by. She gasped in awe. Apparently Bill Blass was one of her big heroes.  Another time I spotted Rick Barry, a Hall of Fame basketball player who briefly played for the Rockets. At 6' 8", he was pretty easy to notice.

élan had five different split levels. What was unique about these levels is that they allowed you to look up and check out the action or look down and check out the action.  It took a very imaginative architect to create this multi-layered effect.  Depending on what level you were on, you had separate areas designed for continental dining, dancing, drinking, backgammon games, and even quiet conversation.  And how do you have a quiet conversation at a loud Disco?  A zoned sound system customized the decibel level for each specific area.  The place was so very elegant.


One Halloween night at élan, I had the most fun dancing of any single evening in my entire life. I did something very daring... I went dancing in a skin-tight outfit.  

It was 1978 and élan had a Halloween Party complete with permission to wear costumes.  Ordinarily I am overtly modest.  However, this event afforded me an unusual opportunity. 

My dance teacher Glen had this amazing skin-tight leopard costume that one of the men in his jazz dance company used for his 'Jungle Madness' number... a man's version of the picture on the right.  I had wanted to wear that costume for the longest time because I knew it would look good on me. Back in those days, thanks to my love of basketball, I was pretty well-built.  However, I was much too modest to wear anything that sexy. I didn't dare wear it because everyone would know it was me. 

On the other hand, this costume came complete with a mask that you could pull over your head.  The mask would disguise my face completely. That gave me an idea.  Why not go to élan by myself, wear normal clothes and put the costume on there?

So that's what I did.  I changed in the restroom and went out to dance floor as the masked Leopard Man. Unfortunately, I immediately recognized a half dozen students of mine scattered throughout the club. So I had to add "silence" to my new persona or face the teasing over my wild outfit all night long.  Now I refused to speak to anyone. That made it a little tricky to dance.  How do you ask a woman to dance without asking?  Finally I used sign language... I went up to a woman and pointed to the dance floor.

After that it didn't matter.  From that point on, the women did the asking.  I was easily the best male dancer in the entire building.  For one thing, I didn't have any competition. Rich guys can't dance a lick. For another thing, once I was behind that mask, I became totally uninhibited.  I moved my body any damn way I pleased.  I was erotic when I felt like it, but never vulgar.  Whatever I did, it seemed to have a positive effect on women.  I was quite the center of attention. 

Women came up to me all night long to ask Leopard Man to dance.  As they watched me move, their eyes went from head to toe.  Watching them lick their lips and grin with excitement, I could tell they liked the show. And I liked their smiles. What an ego trip!  I was being rewarded for daring to show a side of my personality that ordinarily I would never dream of revealing in public. 

People came up to talk to me all night long. However I refused to speak. I would simply draw a line across my mouth to indicate Mum was the word.  That didn't stop people from talking to me.  Like a party game, people wanted to identify my secret identity.  For example, all night long women called me by different names. I simply shook my head no.  Even women who knew me were left guessing.  They were certain it was me, but I shook my head no.  Watching their frustration, I was having a lot of fun with this.  Since no one at my studio had ever seen me dance like this before, my secret identity stayed safe for most of the night.

My mistake came when I decided to partner dance. Unfortunately partner dancing requires a partner who knows what she is doing.  I picked a lady from the studio who had been suspicious of me all night.  Now she knew it was me.  Once I was out there, a second woman and her husband also recognized my style and nodded. I didn't mind... I wanted to partner dance!  Finally I gave in and whispered the truth to all three people.  I swore them all to secrecy.  With my secret identity intact, I spent the rest of the evening dancing with the two ladies.  Now I received a new round of attention.  People cleared the dance floor to let Masked Leopard Man spin the girls and put on a superb show of dancing.  What a night. It was fun to be the star.

In case you are curious, no, I didn't cash in on my brazen display of lewd dancing. That really wasn't what I come for. I went to élan to dance the night away. I loved dancing to Disco music. Too bad it had to die young.

LANCE MCFADDIN

élan was the crown jewel in a series of Houston nightclubs owned by a company named McFaddin-Kendrick in the Seventies and Eighties. Besides élan, there were many others.  Confetti, Studebakers, Foxhunter, Ocean Club, Acapulco Bar, Todd's, Rialto, and Cowboy were all well-known McFaddin-Kendrick properties here in Houston. 

I remember visiting every one of those clubs. Each place was lavishly decorated, were located in fashionable locations near the Galleria, and were professionally operated.  Now that I recall, maybe the clubs were run a little too professionally. 

I ran across a snippet in Wikipedia that made me smile. 

"During the Disco Era of the Seventies, McFaddin Ventures in Houston, Texas, commissioned a study on the stimulation of males and females during the playing of music. They accordingly custom-tuned their speakers to make their numerous properties more exciting. Karin Cook, their music programmer and head disc jockey, trained other McFaddin Ventures disc jockeys to work the music format - 6 up, 3 down - as a way to sell more drinks.

In other words, the people of McFaddin made it their business to know their business, even down to which Disco format sold the most drinks. They were in it to make money and were willing to manipulate every angle to find an advantage.

I had a long-time love-hate relationship with élan.  I have never seen a more beautiful place to dance in my life. If Gilley's was hell, then élan was heaven. I was more than willing to shell out $450 per year for six consecutive years to belong to this exclusive private membership club.

Mind you, Susie, my beautiful girl friend, got in for free.  I was there when some man stopped her one night and offered her a free membership.  That's how I learned they handed out free memberships to beautiful SINGLE women all the time.  It was a very interesting way of stocking the pond.  Nor were they discrete about it. This was done right in front of my eyes.  My girlfriend was now officially 'bait' for the rich businessmen to hit on.  Needless to say, Susie had way too much fun with that one.  I was so ugly I had to pay.  Thanks, Susie.

But that wasn't the reason I hated élan. The arrogance and consistent rudeness on the part of their staff was intolerable.  Yes, they had a wonderful product, but that was no reason to treat paying customers with disrespect. It was so consistent I began to wonder if it was part of the act.

One night I had a very awkward run-in with the staff when I tried to bring in five of my Disco students as guests.   Thanks to my membership, I had the right to bring in four guests at a time. That's why I joined the club in the first place.  Visiting this veritable palace was an excellent way to socialize with my dance students and have fun in the process. It never dawned on me they would quibble over one extra person.  I apologized for my mistake and asked if they could just bend the rule this one time.  No. How absurd.  So we all left in protest. 

I had two incidents where my students were turned away for dress code violations.  I was angry because other people wearing identical clothing were walking in with impunity. 

The second incident infuriated me the most.  Based on the standards they had set during the first incident, I had personally told one of my guests their clothes were not a problem.  Wrong.  No matter how hard I protested, they didn't budge.  Needless to say, I felt terrible watching my humiliated student trudge back to his car.  Since this had happened more than once, I became suspicious.  I guessed that some of my guests didn't meet their 'attractiveness standards'. 

Incidents like these were the main reason I began to dislike the people who worked at élan

However, there was more to it than that.  In general, I always felt their staff used 'snippy' where 'courtesy' would have worked much better.  Did they simply hire snooty people and turn them loose or did they actually train people how to be haughty? 

The climate of iciness was so pervasive that I began to wonder if that attitude was deliberate.  I actually began to suspect it was a cynical management technique used to create the illusion of 'exclusivity'.  Why not turn a few people away on a nightly basis to prove how special our club is! 

You can't have an 'in-crowd' without an 'out-crowd'.  Just like I didn't appreciate élan using Susie to stock their 'in-crowd', I didn't appreciate élan using my students to stock their 'out-crowd' either. 

I can't be sure where their staff's "I'm superior" attitude originated, but I was actually tickled when the place shut down in November 1984.  They sent me an announcement in the mail.  I still have that announcement.  It hangs on my wall at home. I added this inscription - "It pays to be nice to people. Let élan's fate be a lesson. Good riddance."

My negative experience with élan is how I first became aware of McFaddin-Kendrick. I began to associate that name with incredible taste paired with cynical business tactics.  However, my resentment didn't stop me from visiting their expensive establishments.  If anything, I was now extra curious about their business. 

McFaddin-Kendrick was on my radar.
 

WESTERN DANCING REPLACES DISCO IN HOUSTON

Saturday Night Fever created the surge of interest in Disco Dancing after its release.

Oddly enough, Urban Cowboy created its surge of interest in Western dancing before its movie release.

Many people expected Urban Cowboy would revolutionize Country-Western dancing the same way that Saturday Night Fever had taken Disco to another level.  As it turned out, the prediction was correct, but for all the wrong reasons.  Even though the dancing in Urban Cowboy was unbelievably lame, the movie still managed to put Country-Western Dancing on the map nonetheless. 

So how did this freak situation happen? 

Thanks to the eerie similarities between Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy, the movie was expected to feature awesome Western dancing.  The Houston papers buzzed with stories about how John Travolta took Western dance lessons to prepare for the movie.  Everyone wondered out loud if Travolta would do the same thing for Western dancing that he had previously done for Disco dancing.  Thanks to Travolta's presence, everyone assumed that lightning would strike twice.

Amazingly, the "Expectation" was all it took.  The Western Dance Phenomenon became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Everyone started to Western dance before the movie was even released because they assumed it would become popular.  After all, with all those Western Dance Clubs opening here in Houston well before the debut, someone clearly expected Western Dancing to become popular.  If they build it, they will come.

As it turned out, Travolta's dancing in the movie made no difference whatsoever. The deed was already done. The "expectation" had worked its magic ahead of time. 

By the time the movie was released, the wildfire surge of interest in Western dancing was already out of control.  This created a very amusing situation.  When Urban Cowboy was finally released in July - easily the most highly anticipated event in Western civilization since the Second Coming - the average nightly dancing in Houston's country dance clubs was already superior to the dancing in the movie! 

So, yes, the hype surrounding Travolta was the initial catalyst for the upswing in Western dancing.  But for Western Dancing to succeed, Disco had to die.

In regards to the murder investigation into the Death of Disco, I had a prime suspect. His name was Lance McFaddin.

MCFADDIN AND THE WESTERN DANCE CLUB BANDWAGON

When it came to the Death of Disco, it is my guess that Lance McFaddin of Houston-based McFaddin-Kendrick was involved.

Although everything I am about to write is pure speculation, it might be time to give the guy some credit for creating a national phenomenon.

I am fairly certain that Lance McFaddin played a key role in the curious Disco Club-to-Western Club chain reaction.  

Although John Travolta got all the attention in the media, when it came to Western Dancing, Lance McFaddin probably did more to create the upsurge than Travolta himself.  Working behind the scenes, McFaddin personally created the domino effect that resulted in over a dozen Disco Clubs going Country overnight in the spring of 1979. 

Here is some of the evidence.  I have paraphrased a 1981 article in Time Magazine titled "
Living: C&W Nightclubs Riding High" written by Michael Demarest.

"In 1975 Houston had at most a dozen cactus cabarets.  By the time 1981 rolled around, Houston now had more than 300, few of which cared to emulate Gilley's Dodge City outlaw style.

In February 1979, McFaddin-Kendrick, a Houston-based conglomerate, opened Cowboy, the city's first upscale Twostep saloon.  Following its success with Cowboy, McFaddin-Kendrick then went on to launch a national chain of 40 western barns that mixed country music with disco."

Cowboy's success revolutionized the club industry. Before then, there was no such thing as a "classy" country place. It used to be your choices ranged from your standard country dump #1 to your standard country dump #2. 

No one recognized the market for "attractive" western clubs even existed. For that matter, no one had any idea you could successfully mix disco with country and western under one roof without people killing one another. 

However, once Cowboy took off for the moon in typical Space City fashion, everyone else jumped on the bandwagon and opened Cowboy imitations.

The most successful, Fool's Gold and San Antone Rose, were located in affluent Houston residential areas and, like Cowboy, catered to the Gucci gauchos.  Imitation proved to be the most sincere form of flattery." 


THE MILLION DOLLAR GAMBLE

Cowboy was, of course, the expensive gamble that had paid off big for McFaddin-Kendrick in February 1979.  Urban Cowboy debuted in July 1980.

There was quite a time gap between the opening of the club and the opening of the movie.  I counted the months forward.  Cowboy had opened 17 months before the movie was even released.  That was some pretty impressive foresight. Lance McKendrick would have to have a gypsy on his staff to see that one coming.

Based on my experience, the rule of thumb says 'Six Months Minimum'.  This process includes finding a location, getting funding, getting the architect's design, getting permits and then the final build-out. McFaddin probably already had the funding plus it was able to save time by simply converting one of its prime Disco locations. 

So I counted backwards. Assuming that Cowboy was fast-tracked, six months earlier meant the initial planning for Cowboy would have taken place in August 1978.

Now that was interesting. Aaron Latham's "Ballad of the Urban Cowboy" appeared in the September 1978 issue of Esquire Magazine.  This meant the planning for the nightclub Cowboy was probably predated the article itself. It sure helps to have those psychics.

Robert Stigwood had read the Saturday Night Fever article to get his idea for the movie.  That was not the case here. The western dance club Cowboy was already in the works before the Urban Cowboy article was even published. 

Something very sneaky was going on.  Lance McFaddin wasn't reacting to something, he was anticipating something!

August 1978 was the absolute height of the Disco Era. The Discos were raging at a fever pitch. 

And yet in the very midst of Disco Inferno, someone at McFaddin-Kendrick had the inspiration to axe a highly successful disco club and replace it with some kicker club in the middle of the Galleria... yeah, sure.  And I have some swamp land to sell.  C'mon now.  Someone had to know something.   

This was a preposterous gamble, a desperate "are you out of your mind?" kind of idea. 

The new club had to cost at least three million dollars... plus all that money down the drain from designing and decorating the successful disco that was being canned. 

All this for an experimental club format - upscale Western dancing in a ritzy neighborhood - that had never been tried before.  You would need quite a crystal ball for that kind of gamble.  It's just like stuff you read on the Internet.  If something you read or see seems too impossible to believe, then don't believe it.

On the other hand, what if Lance McFaddin knew something that other people didn't?  Then the gamble begins to make more sense.  You don't suppose Mr. McFaddin had some inside information, do you? 

Mind you, this is all speculation.  I could not find one story that connected Sherwood Cryer to Lance McFaddin.  But if I had some money to bet, I would put some of it on Sherwood Cryer.  Sherwood Cryer must have known something.  Several articles about Cryer indicated he was the only man in Pasadena who thought a movie was possible.  Everyone else thought he was full of youknowhat.

Mickey Gilley wrote that Cryer kept insisting that something was going down.  However, Gilley said he didn't believe a word the man said.  Cryer was just an old man grasping at fame.  In fact, after Gilley read Latham's article in Esquire, he was pretty angry.  Gilley confronted Cryer with the article.

Gilley said he thought Latham's article was condescending and negative.  Gilley said in disgust there was no way some nasty article about a bunch of lowlifes in "Stinkadena", the unpleasant nickname for Pasadena, was going to lead to some movie.

Sherwood Cryer strongly disagreed. He told Gilley to shut his mouth and keep his thoughts to himself.  According to Gilley, Cryer said bluntly, "Hey, buddy, you don't need to run that article down. Somebody just might make a movie out of it."

THINGS BEGIN TO MAKE MORE SENSE

Sherwood Cryer was the man who had talked to Clay Felker at length on that fateful night back in July 1978 when Felker had his vision.  Quite likely, Felker took Cryer into his confidence and explained this story could very easily lead to something big.  During the month that Aaron Latham hung out at Gilley's, Sherwood Cryer could easily have passed on the tip to his buddy Lance McFaddin over in the Galleria.

Or for that matter, maybe Aaron Latham connected with McFaddin.  After all, Latham included a visit to McFaddin's élan in his screenplay.  Surely at some point Latham and McFaddin crossed paths.  Or perhaps Clay Felker connected directly with Lance McFaddin during the planning stages of the article.  In the month while Aaron Latham was writing his story, Felker was already promoting the movie.  The point is this - all signs indicate that McFaddin was tipped off early in the game.

Inside Information - I have long suspected that's how the big players make their money. They know what's going to happen before I do.  That's why they are rich and I am poor.  To the insiders go the spoils, to the uninformed goes the chance to write about what he missed out on.

The whole affair was curious.  As conspiracies go, I am not sure the 1979-1980 Western upsurge can be ranked up there beside the murky Trilateral Commission, but the evidence strongly suggests there were some key players who knew things ahead of time.

Someone predicted the change in the country-music tastes two years before the movie appeared.

Someone predicted the demand for upscale Western fashions two years before the movie appeared.

Someone anticipated the success of an upscale Western dance club two years before the movie appeared.

Two years is a long time.  Dumb luck?  Good guess?  Lucky prediction?

None of the above.  It was Clay Felker looking to repeat his success with Saturday Night Fever. Once he found his vehicle, he brought his circle of friends together, laid out his vision, and helped make it happen. The man who created a Disco movie can create a Western movie. Cut and Paste.

I don't know how or when Lance McFaddin first heard about the project, but I would bet the farm he was in on the Big Secret even before Latham's September 1978 article was published. 

How else would would McFaddin-Kendrick have Cowboy, the company's daring new concept, ready to open 17 MONTHS before the movie was even released? 

For that matter, lots of people were in on the Big Secret.  How else can you account for the remarkable coordinated effort well ahead of movie's release?

Synergy occurs when the result is greater than the sum of the parts. Synergy is created when things work in concert together to create an outcome that is of more value than the total of the individual input.

Country Music - Country Fashion - Country Club - Country Movie.  That amazing four-way alliance was pure "Synergy".


COWBOY REVISITED

Cowboy, Lance McFaddin's golden gamble, was a powerful example of the success that came from tapping into the Western Synergy.

Cowboy
was the first-ever country-western dance club to go upscale.  No one had ever thought of mixing the Prairie and the Galleria before. 

What an enormous gamble!  Putting a country dance club in a pricy spot like the Galleria would take a lot of guts... unless maybe you knew something, of course. 

By creating the very first uptown, country-chic bar in the middle of the Galleria, Houston's fashion mecca, Cowboy's success could be attributed to the uncanny prescience of being in the right place at the right time... and way ahead of everyone else.

Cowboy was the first dance club to feature the new "progressive" country sound being peddled by the movie.   Even more remarkable, he made this prediction eight months before the new music even hit the market!  How did McFaddin-Kendrick so accurately predict this major shift in the direction of Western music? 

Of all the changes that took place, none was more remarkable than watching Gloria Vanderbilt jeans suddenly compete with Wranglers.  Anyone who knows anything will tell you that fashion and country don't mix.  Just because it is named "Rodeo Drive" in Beverly Hills doesn't mean a socialite would be caught dead wearing rodeo clothes in Hollywood... that is, not until 1980 came along and changed the fashion landscape forever. This was a radical shift.  Who would have ever guessed?

Lance McFaddin guessed right.  Location. Location. Location. His new upscale club was placed smack dab in the Galleria. He made sure to decorate his club so lavishly that Houston's fashion-conscious ladies would feel completely at ease. This meant the ladies could shop at the Galleria for the latest in upscale Western fashions, then simply stroll across Alabama Street to Cowboy to have an evening margarita wearing their brand new stunning western outfits.  Brilliant!  Such vision!

And what would the fashionable ladies talk about with a Crystal Gayle song in the background?  Why, the upcoming Urban Cowboy movie of course!  What else was there to talk about?

   

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE -
URBAN COWBOY MEETS SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER


Rick Archer's Note:  The main purpose of my article has been to answer this question:

How on earth did a complete dump like Gilley's ever become the national symbol for popularity?

We now know that Clay Felker came up with the short end on Saturday Night Fever. After that, Felker made it his goal in life to find a sequel. Gilley's of all places turned out to be the place Clay Felker had been looking for.

Unfortunately, I was unable to locate any anecdotes that dealt with Felker's wheeling and dealing once he began his Urban Cowboy project.  There were no articles I could find that explained the full extent of his role in creating the movie Urban Cowboy.

That said, by connecting the dots, it becomes obvious that Felker brought in the Fashion people, the Movie people, and the Music people to create a coordinated effort in support of his Urban Cowboy project.  Felker was probably involved with Urban Cowboy from start to finish.  This movie was his baby.

There is one final question that must be asked. 

Who was responsible for making the illogical shift from a dump like Gilley's to a palace like Cowboy

Whose idea was it ? Was it Lance McFaddin?  Was it Clay Felker?  Or was it somebody else we don't know about it?

I invite you to study the two pictures on the right.  On the top, you see the fashionable world of preppie cowboys and cowgirls, the kind of urban professionals you might have met at Cowboy thanks to the Urban Cowboy influence that permeated 1980 Houston. 

Below you see all the markings of a Gilley's-style western honky-tonk complete with bikers, pool players, fights, and working class dancers.

These are two totally different worlds. There was nothing in Aaron Latham's original story that connected them. 

Somebody had the idea to jump from hick to chic.

Clay Felker?  A Hollywood movie guy?  A New York fashion lady?  A Nashville music executive? 

Saturday Night Fever at least took advantage of an actual urban trend towards Disco. But there was absolutely no trend whatsoever towards taking Western upscale.

I contend this entire cultural phenomenon was created behind the scenes by someone in Felker's inner circle.  Someone in New York had a clever idea.  From that point on, the Synergy Group started pushing the right buttons.


URBAN MEETS COWBOY, NEW YORK MEETS TEXAS

Urban Cowboy was little more than a cut and paste clone of Saturday Night Fever disguised inside a Western theme.  The two movies were linked from the very start.

What would happen if you owned an expensive Disco and someone told you a movie named Urban Cowboy was on its way?  Your clientele include beautiful women wearing the latest clothes and well-heeled urban professionals who like to chase beautiful women.  The Disco is making money hand over fist.  Do you ditch the Disco completely and open up a dump like Gilley's in the Galleria?  Or do you look for some kind of compromise? 

You compromise.  When Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy met the Galleria, you got Cowboy, plain and simple.

Thanks to the world of hip, sophisticated, New York professionals like Clay Felker and Aaron Latham meeting with the world of country folk like Mickey Gilley and Sherwood Cryer, two totally different worlds collided.  New York met Texas head on.  Houston, Texas, was right in the middle of the collision.  Our city would be changed forever.

There was one particular man right in the middle of the crossroad - Lance McFaddin.  McFaddin was the perfect synthesis of the business savvy of the New York people and the business savvy of Sherwood Cryer.  He instinctively understood the next step called for an upgrade on the Gilley's concept.  Where McFaddin was particularly bold was taking a chance on mixing the popular Disco music of the day right along side Western music. 

Aaron Latham first suggested this idea in the scene where he had Travolta take the rich Houston girl dancing at élan.  Maybe it was indeed possible to mix the world of Disco - Travolta SNF - and the world of Country - Travolta UC.  Powerful symbolism. 

Once McFaddin made his move, the rest of Houston's business community got wind of "The Big Secret".  From that point on, the entire Houston business community was more than willing to participate in the Western synergy.  The changing of the Discos to Western clubs was the most obvious sign that Houston's movers and shakers had all hopped on to the Urban Cowboy bandwagon.  

Urban Cowboy has often been referred to as "the anti-Disco" movie.  So what happens when you mix matter and anti-matter?  For starters, you get one heck of a confused city, that's what. 

The mixture of two cultures - Disco and Western - caused a definite rift in my hometown's space-time continuum.  One sad casualty of this confusion was Disco which died a miserable death in Houston a full year earlier than it did in the rest of of America. 

However, the Death of Disco wasn't Lance McFaddin's fault like I first believed.  As I learned 30 years later during my research for this article, McFaddin probably had no intention of damaging his crown jewel élan by turning it into a Western joint.  All he was doing was take advantage of "The Next Big Thing".  Cowboy was simply a shrewd investment poised to take advantage of the coming changes. I imagine McFaddin assumed Houston was big enough to support two different music and dance concepts simultaneously. 

I might add McFaddin's concept for Cowboy had included Disco music as well.  However, in the stampede to create all the new Western clubs practically overnight, McFaddin's message got lost in jumble.  The other clubs forgot to include Disco in their new format.

You can't have Disco Dancing without Disco music.  Choked off from the music, Disco died young here in Houston.  It was a cruel and totally unnecessary death.  Oddly enough, however, Disco lingered in the netherworld. 

Soon enough, the Ghost of Disco would come back to haunt Houston.

Once all of Houston's Disco dancers discovered how boring the Twostep was, they began to experiment with ways to make the dance more exciting.  Pretty soon, the ex-Disco dancers had found a way to add turns to the Twostep and Polka.  The men had discovered a way to add Disco-like double turns to western dancing.  Best of all, the women loved it!  The turns were flashy and exciting.

This new development caught on like wildfire.  Within months, all over the western dance floor, women were turning themselves silly and smiling in the process.  The centrifugal force of the spins made their dresses swirl up and their long hair magically float in air.  Any man with a brain watched to see just how far those dresses would rise.  For the first time, the Western guys discovered the same thing the Disco guys had known for a long time - it's a lot of fun to watch women spin!

From the ashes of Disco, a new, far more sophisticated form of Western dancing had emerged here in Houston.  Some people called it "Twostep with Turns", but I didn't think that name did justice to this new phenomenon.  After all, an entirely new dance form was emerging right before our eyes. 

Thanks to the excitement generated by Urban Cowboy, the whole city was experimenting on a nightly basis with an exciting new type of Western dancing that added turns and famous Disco moves like the Pretzel, Lariat, and Rope to the mundane Twostep. 

Here at my dance studio in Houston, I decided to give these fancy turns a new name.  I called it "Western Swing" in honor of the up-tempo Texas dance music made famous by Bob Wills back in the Thirties. 



The name fit like a glove -
Swing dancing to Western music. To me, Western Swing was "Disco on the Run"... Disco-style spins mixed with the traveling motion of the Twostep.  

If we could have Swing music and Swing dancing, I didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t have Western Swing music and Western Swing dancing as well.  So that’s what I named it thirty years ago here at my dance studio.  My name was certainly an improvement over "Twostep with Turns".

The collision of Urban Cowboy and Saturday Night Fever here in Houston had produced a new dance: Western Swing

Western Dancing would never be the same.


RA
June 2010

   
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