In 1980 when I first came to Texas, I lived in Pasadena for a while, just a few blocks from Gilley’s. During that long hot summer I went there almost every Friday night. It was convenient, and their beer was always cold.
I was an alien when it came to cowboy shit-kicker culture. The C/W music crowd and their way of dancing little mincing steps in a big polka circle seemed odd to me. Still, I always found something new and interesting to see at Gilley’s.
Going there was a part of my Texas orientation process. I was a refugee Easterner, trying to navigate a new world. I checked out a lot of hangouts in the Pasadena area in those days, before I moved into the Southwest Side. Two other memorable clubs that come to mind are Yesterday Once More, a saloon with a separate “mood room” featuring sofas and lots of Carpenters tunes; and Legal Tender, a pitch-dark multi-level club where I once was offered a couple of tokes in the upper bleacher section and got a bad case of vertigo.
All that aside, Gilley’s felt the most comfortable. It was a place where, even if you didn’t subscribe to the whole Country-Western thing, you could at least roam around and breathe. You could choose to be inconspicuous, or step out for a while then re-enter the fray whenever you liked. It was not at all like having the constant pressure and high visibility in Houston’s disco club scene.
Anyway, it was the biggest honky tonk I’d ever seen. And like real honky tonks, it was nothing pretty. Just a low one-story warehouse with a concrete floor surrounded by a bumpy, sandy, unpaved parking lot.
Gilley’s had a carport entrance with some sort of disjointed lodge decor. There were a few tree stumps to sit on, and a bunch of warning signs about guns. The office was right inside the entry way, past the bouncers. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Urban Cowboy,” the entrance was shown true to life, robbery and shootings included.
The first Gilley’s lesson I learned was out in the parking lot. Always leave the visor down in your car. Otherwise, roaming employees would plaster a red and white Gilley’s bumper-sticker or two on your car, no questions asked. My Camaro at one time or another had several Gilley’s stickers.
When friends visited from out of town and asked about it, I would take them out there in the afternoon when the crowds were down. If you were of the persuasion to dance the two-step, the music was always on, and the dance floor open and a half-block wide. The surface was parquet wood worn to a fine dusty grain.
Anyone who ever sang a country song in those days appeared on the stage. It was no big deal to go in and see someone famous you knew.
In 1980, when Johnny Lee recorded “Looking for Love” and Travolta came to town, Gilley’s transformed from a small-town, suburban Houston beer joint to a national phenomenon. More people made a tourist stop there than at the Astrodome and Space Center combined.
Mickey Gilley and his big money partner Sherwood Cryer ran another club in Pasadena called the Nesadel. That was the original C/W club for Mickey and his gang, but by the Eighties it featured mostly rock n’ roll. The Nesadel was also sort of down and dirty, but it was a good place to hear live bands. It was funky and druggy and smoky, but not a rough place. Appropriately, several head shops opened up nearby.
Gilley’s definitely had a reputation for fights. The place brought in some no-nonsense types. Locals had their codes of honor. Management installed arcade game punching bag machines to help guys vent, but the competitions probably started more fights than not.
The best way to avoid a confrontation in Gilley’s was to leave your girlfriend home. Otherwise, you might find yourself defending an intrusion. The cowboys considered all women, no matter who they were with, fair game.
Houston was pretty wide open at the time. Bars served three-for-ones. People went to work and then out to the clubs with the same flask of schnapps in their back pocket. The freeways were like “trouble on Main Street” in the old westerns. If someone got mad in traffic, the tire irons or knives or even guns might come out of the trunk.
One night, there was a traffic backup on Interstate 45 not far from Spenser Highway. Rumor had it that Travolta and Debra Winger were filming a scene at a diner along the feeder road. Pickup trucks left the freeway and tore across grassy gullies, forging new exit ramps to get there.
Houston had severe Urban Cowboy mania for a while. Everyone wore hats and boots, I mean everyone. Looking back, I can say that a good pair of Nocona boots were sort of handsome, even if (as a South Floridian) I can’t endure their discomfort now. But it’s bizarre to recall those hats: straw and felt, ranchero and bull-rider, and otherwise. I just can’t imagine people let themselves look like that. But there we were, in our hats and plaid Howdy Doody shirts, doing something ridiculous like the ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe.’
the author in costume in Blanco TX 1980
Inside Gilley’s vast hall, you couldn’t see from one end to the other. When you went to the rest rooms in back, it was a hike. One advantage was that you learned where the exits were. Important to know, in case of emergency.
Some said the night club looked like a fire trap. I agree. While it had its charm, it was definitely not fire-code friendly. The drop-down ceiling was made of fiber acoustic tiles stamped with club logos. Many tiles were missing or water-stained by roof leaks, or simply rotted out. Everyone smoked like chimneys. The stage lighting was intense. Bar area walls were constructed of stacked-up cardboard cases of Lone Star beer. When Mickey Gilley put his label on a beer bottle (brewed by Falstaff), stacks of those were everywhere too. There were two or three food kitchens crammed into one corner behind the pool tables. You could smell the food and grease and feel the heat. That section reminded me of the vending area underneath a football stadium.
The floor around the mechanical bulls area was covered with dozens of dirty mattresses, to cushion riders when they got thrown off. I heard people in the bar say the mattresses came from whorehouses down in Mexico. Later, as Gilley’s grew in fame and tried to Disney-ize itself, they were replaced with shiny red vinyl mats.
Gilley and Cryer eventually got a little crazy expanding things. The touristy gift shops and themed spinoff enterprises kept coming. They even built a full-size arena for rodeo next to the club.
Meanwhile, except for the local die-hards, people were coming to their senses again and leaving the Urban Cowboy craze behind. As they moved on to the next thing, customer traffic slowed.
As for me, I moved to the city inside the Loop near Bellaire and went back to the places I know best: lounges, R&R dance clubs and discos. Places like Todd’s and Confetti’s where we used to wear our suits after work and dance freestyle from five until whenever we took someone home.
Whether by accident or design, Gilley’s nightclub burned down in 1989. The 15-acre property was taken over by the Pasadena school board.
Now there is a new Gilley’s several hundred miles north in Dallas. The ads indicate that it’s probably an overblown, Branson-ized tribute to the original. I can’t imagine it could ever be as memorable as the first one
Apparently in 2011 a new Gilley’s re-opened in Pasadena. I wonder if the old dudes there still get in fights over their old ladies.
PS- Thank you, Frank Billingsley of KPRC-TV in Houston for quoting from this article as emcee of the Mickey Gilley Tribute in Pasadena, TX in June 2022.
William P. Moore ©