suppressed pulp

The Long Ago Story of a Training Film Producer

Extract from “Fantastic Response: Work Stories from the Great Information Age”

© 2010  William P. Moore 

Going to Work for Big Daddy

The people and places come and go, asking to be dispelled. The flashbacks are gray and disordered. 

One night at Cardinal Associates’ original office on Monroe Road, circa 1973, Big Daddy CEO held a “future stockholders” meeting. He and the head of sales spoke about how rich we were going to be. Big Daddy struck me as having a huge appetite, someone who wanted to eat life before it ate him. He was powerful when he held the floor, and I remember some of us were jittery with expectation when we got up to introduce ourselves. At the time I really wanted to believe in all the blue sky predictions. I never expected the Cardinal saga would leave such a trail of woe.  

In a dream set in the present I saw Jay the Courier, still alive, using his arthritically twisted hands to load DART audio-visual instructional units into the Cardinal station wagon. He didn’t stack them neatly so their bright red sleeves aligned with each other; he opened the tailgate and dumped them in helter skelter. His face had changed after three decades. His good-natured and gentle expression was gone, replaced with the gnarled bitterness of a prizefighter who had been beaten senseless and done hard time. 

CFO Mack Jax looked like a defensive tackle from the Knute Rockne era. He had his shirt off in the back lot of the Monroe Road office. He carried a circular saw and cut two by fours. His whale-like GMC Suburban was parked in the sparse lawn. Under a nearby lean-to, Redneck Eddie was bent over his Nikon shooting flat art. Both of them were sweating in the Carolina summer. 

Inside, a tall and determined looking figure occupied a newly partitioned office with fresh drywall. There were no decorations. His surroundings were glaring white. The wall-mounted air conditioner was set to Glacial. He maintained perfect posture at his clean desk. O. Donald, VP of Production, had all-American traits. He might have even been our Alpha male. Before Cardinal, he had worked as a TV anchor for Big Daddy. He wasn’t a military man, but his dress and presence could be described in military slang: he was strack – fastidiously turned out and squared away. His only vice was the endless chain of menthol cigarettes he consumed. At his desk he was reviewing a writer’s script, giving it the once-over with a stern sort of kindness. He arched his right eyebrow in a scrutinizing squint.

I interviewed in O. Donald’s grotto on Monroe Road in 1972, right out of college with an English Literature degree from Carolina, the place with the red decal as opposed to O. Donald’s Carolina with the blue decal. I arrived with two required scripts in hand. One was my description of how to tie a shoelace, and the other was a set of instructions, with real props, on how to bait a mousetrap. Something went right. I enlisted at $140 a week, back then the equivalent of my monthly rent. 

In a disturbing dream I am stitching fabric in my cubicle. I feel uneasily like a contestant in an early days version of Project Runway. I go into the studio with all my patterns and scissors and sewing shit and work with Redneck Eddie to photograph the program. O. Donald comes in to model the necktie we taught everyone how to make. The shot appears in the last frame. Out of view, the back of his shirt is girded with clothes pins to make the front look unwrinkled and the tie hang perfect, just like they do in the Sears catalog.

To my relief, I graduated to the automotive series and was now working with Tom W. One morning I got my first professional edit, a line-by- line critique from Tom W.  The review was an informal event. We leaned back in our director chairs, making irreverent remarks. Tom wore suits that looked British and sometimes he sported a pipe or a cigar stub. He was both country and urbane. He opened a pen and with its cap held between his teeth he marked my script with redlines that made the words work much better. His writing tips left a lasting impression. I think I told him that and thanked him. Unassuming, Tom might have felt embarrassed.

Cardinal held daily meetings first thing in the morning in a big pow-wow circle formed by our black canvas director chairs. Big Daddy would talk first and debrief us on his latest road trip. He gave details in dramatic fashion like Dickens on tour in America. In the last part of the meeting, there was a final go-around. We all attempted to say something clever, eager to be a recognized player in Big Daddy’s witty parlor scene. 

The Sales force took over another building a few doors down on Monroe Boulevard. It was a small shack across the street from a health food café. The Cardinal “bird wagons” were idly parked behind it, and the salesmen strolled around in their suits acting anxious. Their boss, the Head of Sales (who we codenamed Morey Amsterdam) would come by and make cracks to get everyone laughing. Sometimes another funny man would join in, Little Mel, who would leave his Accounting office and drop by to do some shtick. 

When the company relocated closer to downtown Charlotte, Big Daddy scored a two-story building once held by IBM. The fearless leaders had nice window offices. The rest of us, in the meantime, lived in a Mack Jax Architecture cattle pen, which was a matrix of sixteen plywood cubicles, raised in the middle of the second floor. Outside the pen you could hear us pecking away on our Royal manual typewriters. The cubicles had all the charm of an empty refrigerator crate. Some of us fashioned “doors” made of fabric curtain or beads or in one case a 78×30 sheet of brown wrapping paper.  Like a toilet stall there was open space at the bottom (I could tickle Squeaky Reichart’s ankles if I chose to). One morning I looked up and saw Shuman the Human next door. He chinned himself up to the ledge.  He was joking about something, his ruddy face coloring brightly. Then in my dream the wall became glass and I could see that Shuman the Human had folded his yellow tie forward between his collar in a creaseless non-knot, like some sort of dog tongue. It might have been a Paul Harvey fashion statement or even something political and it was frightening. 

In another vision Sam the Comic Book Illustrator was in my guest chair talking non-stop. I had passed the point of polite listening and was struggling to retain consciousness. Jones came by and stood by the cubicle entrance, a thin paper cup of coffee trembling in his hand. He recited a haiku then walked away. Sam stopped his chatter and paused, breathless. He gave me a cartoon look of astonishment and then exhaled in wild uncomprehending laughter. 

Big Daddy sat with his legs crossed in an empty office overlooking the parking lot on the second floor.  It was a small place where many of us escaped to eat our brown-bag lunches. Big Daddy had a stenotype machine in his lap and was showing Darkroom Wade the “Cardinal Key” that he had invented to denote the long sound of a vowel. Darkroom Wade nodded with enthusiasm and munched on a huge square of cheddar cheese. A trendy writer named Curt Pequeño twisted off the cap of a split-size bottle of red wine. Big Daddy asked Curt Pequeño if he could have some because, he said with conviction, “it smells delicious.”

Tapping down the hall in her 3-inch heels and mini-skirt, Motown Mama offered a tawdry sparkle to the grim surroundings of the cubicle cattle pen. She had blonde hair cut short like Liza Minnelli. She was more reckless than graceful. She was nearsighted and would bump into people. Her apparition ran headlong into me, causing her forehead to leave a pale swipe of makeup on my shirt. Later, Flakey Foont sat next to me during our tuna salad lunch at the YMCA cafeteria and sniffed at me oddly. “You smell like something funky,” he said. After lunch, in the afternoon when the sun was streaming in, the aroma blended with the tuna still in my nostrils. I went to the janitors’ sink (where at night Jones sometimes bathed) and tried to sponge-wash that section of my shirt. I couldn’t get rid of it. I smelled like Motown and wondered how long I would.  

We were at the annual summer picnic at the old WSOC-TV facility on Lake Norman. Redneck Eddie and Foot-Pedal Jerry were cooking a pit pig. They stumbled about in their swim trunks. Everyone was getting sloshed with keg beer. Me and Slick Eddie (who, besides being a photographer too, was nothing at all like Redneck Eddie) joked about being outcast hippies because we had on blue jeans. It was about 126 degrees outside. Earlier we had ducked off into a stand of pine trees and smoked a doobie. After lunch one of the salesmen, maybe it was Jolly Ben, arrived in a speedboat while swigging on a bottle of liquor. He set up shifts to take everyone skiing. If we said no, the crew taunted us. Slick Eddie finally yielded. He held the ski rope and managed to get up, his jeans pouring out torrents of water, then went about ten yards before he fell backward. People on the boat were yelling and laughing. When I caved to their taunting and got in the water, half of Lake Norman rushed into my mouth. I churned forward in my Levis in a submerged crouch, my head barely above the surface behind two ski tips. I was choking and wondered about drowning before I finally let go of the rope. 

O. Donald held a meeting with the Exxon guys upstairs where we had placed a conference table in the break room (at night Jones’ secret kitchen). When it was time for lunch we gathered downstairs at the front desk. It was in the days when Cardinal relaxed the dress code, but O. Donald asked that I wear a suit for the occasion.  It was an awful looking plaid suit with a puke tie. I had a shaggy mustache and my hair was long, making me even stranger looking.  The receptionist (I can’t recall her name) kept pointing and laughing at me. When we were outside the door, she was still laughing. Humiliated, I marched down Morehead Street with the entourage to a staid and overpriced lunch at the Red Carpet Inn. I found the atmosphere there funereal: dim lights, heavy Victorian furnishings. O. Donald seemed happy and spoke to the others in his smooth TV voice. The vision was ecclesiastical, with his highness holding forth at the table talking to brothers in his rectory. That’s all fine and good, but I never liked business lunches. I decided I hated my job.

I was only 26. I didn’t like the prospect of having to work and be unhappy. My thoughts and indulgences were dark.  One day I was complaining about it to Steven Krane.

He was looking through his desk drawer for some herbal bark to chew on.

 “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ve only got forty more years.”

In another troubling dream, I am standing at the console of a bulk cassette-duplicating machine. It is freshly loaded with Scotch 3M C90 tapes.  I thread the master Amway recording and (with guilt and loathing) push the button to generate twenty dubs. Most of us employed in the back room at Munwoe’s House of Tapes make cutting jokes about the lies and foolish propaganda in these tapes. But we ship hundreds of them every day via UPS. They are our paycheck. If only the studio had made as many DART cartridges. Sometimes a huge motor home with little American flags on its roof stops by the warehouse and a big shot with too much cologne parades in to collect his boxes of tapes. Day after day, during a long and desperate layoff period, I am insane and lost and doomed at Munwoe’s recording studio. O. Donald and Big Daddy eventually rescue me.

My mother died in the summer of 1975. I went to the burial in South Carolina and brought back peaches from my Uncle’s farm. Big Daddy took one from the basket and ate it, standing by my desk. Wet bits of fruit clung to his Van Dyke beard. He said it was the best peach he had ever eaten. He wiped up with a handkerchief and extended his condolences. Then we went downstairs and brainstormed on the How to Open a Bank Account series.

Writing Supervisor Flakey Foont was among the group of us who regularly played ping-pong after lunch at the Y across the street. The games grew more intense, and our hour always ran over. Maybe out of fear of O. Donald’s insistence on punctuality, Foont suggested we get our own setup. He was a good scoutmaster. He got a table and put it in an empty room upstairs. Foont talked some of us into buying special rackets with a nice foamy rubber surface instead of sandpaper. We held a tournament. Then the ping-pong fad passed. Next, he talked some of us into evening guitar lessons and flat-picking sessions. That didn’t last too long either. We knew that Foont was well intentioned. He made honest attempts to create “team spirit.”  But actually Cardinal had its own synergies that some of us understood and tapped into. Our morale required no artificial injections; just honest writing work, a steady check, and beer breaks at Gentleman Jim Conder’s Sundries down the street.  

As an aside, the ping-pong room was also where Cardinal presented its Christmas Slide Show, a clever “roast” production put together by Redneck Eddie. The party took place in the evening, and the spouses and investors came. I was stunned to see Jones on hand, clean and freshly shaven, wearing a new suit that someone had helped him buy, right off the rack.

 Weeks before, Jones took me into the basement of the building and showed me where he was living. We had to lower our heads and stoop under pipes and ductwork. We made a sharp turn and there, against the far wall and hidden from view by the large furnace, was Jones’ hard times bedroom. He had a table lamp, something that looked like a sleeping bag (it may have been the baby mattress Tom W. describes in his accounts of Cardinal), a rudimentary bookshelf with his books of “intellectual snobbery,” a typewriter, and a large pyramid of Schlitz beer cans. I mentioned that John Cheever once lived in a flophouse and wrote in the cellar. Jones wasn’t listening. He was preoccupied and nervous as hell. He asked me if I would help him move his things out “when the time came.” 

A variety of Winston Wolf figures visited and left, trying to help resolve Cardinal’s dilemma. At one desperate point, the name McGeorge Bundy was thrown around as someone who might help. Some of us wondered: the war escalator under LBJ? That McGeorge Bundy? (Looking back on this, I learned that after his White House days Bundy was the big cheese at the Ford Foundation, and – in a reach of logic – possibly had educational grant money to give away.)

Tom W has suggested that our scarring experience at Cardinal might have been our version of Viet Nam.  We tried to extend the metaphor, thinking of the film “Apocalypse Now” with Cardinal figures in the cast: Big Daddy CEO as Colonel Kurtz, VP O. Donald as Captain Willard, Professor Jones as the Dennis Hopper photojournalist, and Slick Eddie as Lance the surfer. The rest of us were anxiety-ridden troops who endured, defending a bridge over and over again at the last outpost. 

Down the hall a chorus of ghostly voices made an interrogatory wail:  “Who hired Bud Stewart?  Did you hire Bud Stewart?”  The Frito Bandito contractor stood outside my office in a tall pilgrim’s posture and asked, “What’s cooking, Boss?”

Towards the end, Cardinal built its own recording studio upstairs, essentially thumbing its nose at Munwoe’s House of Tapes. Stoic O. Donald did the narrations, and Foot-Pedal Jerry, jovial and servile, manned the board. I produced the last of my Cardinal programs in this makeshift studio, several pointless ones based on a Midwest vocational school’s programs. I think one of them was “How to Clean Your Icebox,” sure to get a huge response in the educational marketplace.

In a concurrent nightmare I came into O. Donald’s office for his group’s Production meeting and was twenty minutes late. I was hung over and my coffee cup had a broken handle, prompting me to announce, “I’ve lost my grip.”  The pun reduced O. Donald’s anger and he broke a smile. But then after the meeting, while the others left, he asked me to stay. In the dream I sat in O. Donald’s office alone for a few minutes while he went to the bathroom.  When he returned he was wearing a white alb with a maroon cincture. He stood above me and said even though we were in hard times and the company may not make it, he found it necessary to issue me a formal reprimand. 

In an alternate dream I was given a promotion. That was right after O. Donald reviewed the filmstrip for Fuel Systems XVII and decided that the open-end wrench in the photograph wasn’t backward after all, and bumped my salary grade up five notches, gave me a company car, and asked me to begin recruiting a staff of pretty female writers. Meanwhile Big Daddy announced that Cardinal stock had gone public and Merrill Lynch said the IPO was a huge success and we were instantly rich. Insolvent Professor Jones walked by and said he had just closed on a house. All of us went into the conference room and had a couple of six-packs to celebrate. 



 The Old Crow Ohio Meeting

After a wretched business class flight to Cleveland, I sat up late in a Ramada Inn with Big Daddy and one of his sales reps, Jolly Ben. We passed around a fifth of Old Crow bourbon and drank it straight out of plastic cups.

Jolly Ben was one of Big Daddy’s favorite salesmen. He was a large, good-natured guy whose sunny disposition didn’t quite fit the Cardinal mold. He worked selling to schools, and that environment was easier on the soul than the corporate market. I don’t think Ben sold for us very long. He may have left around the same time Mel & Bucky’s Accounting department was told to cut expenses and pulled the plug on the fleet of sales cars and the drivers too.

Sitting around in the hotel room, Jolly Ben and Big Daddy bragged to me about their previous trip. They claimed to have pulled strings to reserve an executive suite at the Ritz-Carlton, and as a result, bumped the Billy Graham contingency. They used the suite to entertain and hustle a bunch of middle managers from AB Dick or somewhere.

Big Daddy would often mix impertinence with gravitas.

The stories continued. I don’t recall most of his and Ben’s bullshit that night. I was along on the trip basically to observe and learn and sit in on a meeting scheduled with Dietzgen. Big Daddy wanted them to hire us to produce training programs on how to use their new automated drafting tools device. I was slated to be the scriptwriter.

Big Daddy got real serious for a moment. He turned off the room’s TV, which had been playing without sound. He lit his pipe and stood by the window. Did his best Douglas Macarthur stance. He said he was spreading himself thin in Ohio. He told me to take the lead. To meet by myself with the Dietzgen people in the morning, gather data, then go home and write a proposal. He said I needed to “wear a bit of a sales hat.”

I had only been with Cardinal a few weeks, and as a new writer, this assignment was an unexpected bomb of angst. I recalled that Big Daddy had told me that he and O. Donald wanted to groom Cardinal writers like they did their news reporters, to be versatile and capable of many jobs. 

As I felt my nerves grating against this new responsibility, Big Daddy and Jolly Ben shifted back to on-the-road stories and general hilarity.

I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation. I silently wished I could just go back to my room and sleep. Big Daddy in his omniscient way knew this about me and prolonged the meeting, taking small jabs at my unease. We stayed up until the Old Crow was almost gone.

In the morning they dropped me off downtown for the Dietzgen meeting. I met with one or two of the clients and made small talk. Luckily most of our time was spent looking at the electronic drafting gizmo. The technician had some problems with it. The robotic t-square lurched and skipped across the drawing table. Only one company person gave me interview time, and he was like me: a small fish who wasn’t very knowledgeable about deals. Big Daddy and Ben came breezing in for lunch and then we all flew home early. They were not too interested in hearing about Dietzgen, so I figured something had changed with their client base in Ohio.

My cut-and-paste typed yellow-paper draft proposal to Dietzgen was never requested, and the document still sits in a musty folder in my file cabinet, decades later in Florida. Cardinal eventually did produce a couple of programs for AB Dick.

Rats Falling from the Sky: the Hotlanta Convention

During a brief period when Cardinal had a thread of a budget, many of us were enlisted to travel in support of an exhibitor’s booth at some national training convention somewhere.

Atlanta was an opportunity because of its close proximity to Charlotte. That took expensive airline fees out of the equation.

Mack Jax, the venerable CFO, was trying hard to raise capital. He called on all sorts of people. An anxious look came into his eyes. Once warm and avuncular, he now appeared distressed, bent in the spine.

Meanwhile, Big Daddy CEO had his minions build the exhibit’s booth panels and ship them south. The show’s union workers in Atlanta would install them. Then he orchestrated and set forth a caravan of vehicles and trailers, deployed in phases from our Charlotte office.

Six or eight or way too many of us piled inside one of the company’s station wagons, this particular one driven by Flakey Foont, our feckless supervisor. We left after work and traveled all evening. 

We were in the post-Watergate era, still in the Nixon-Ford Recession when everyone had to drive 55 mph. As dull as 55 was, the slower pace may have saved our lives. The U-Haul trailer was not properly loaded. Its swollen cargo load of Directed Action Response Training (DART) machines swung dangerously behind us.

One of the writers in the car, Randy R, a string bean of a fellow with a heavy Carolina accent, was wicked clever. He entertained us with descriptions and by keening snippets of Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings and other “Outlaw” country singers. At the time, all of those names were new to me.

Randy R later became a legendary figure for two things at Cardinal: 1) his “Randometer” which was a spinning abacus type device that generated random numbers for use in a cash register student program, and 2) his hip and rebellious response to a Yes or No question by an important Cardinal company officer during a crucial confrontation:  Randy said “Negative, man!”

Later that night, approaching the city, the conversations wore down and fatigue set in. Most of us rolled our heads around, shifted in our seats, and fought sleep. Then Randy R woke us up with a cry of alarm, claiming he saw rats falling out of the sky. At that moment the trailer began a jackknife move, which Foont successfully countered. 

As we exited I-85 and negotiated the Atlanta streets in search of the hotel, the talk came to room assignments. There were to be pairs per double-bedded rooms. Only we were one person too many, which meant someone would have to bunk in Big Daddy’s room. There was considerable fear in the car about this prospect. We did the only fair thing we could think of: we drew cards.

Unfortunately I lost.

Once we got to the hotel, before we did anything else, most of us hit the bar. I hit it a little harder than most.

I brought my suitcase and sorry ass up to the door of Big Daddy’s room at the Atlanta Riviera, sometime around midnight. I was praying that there were double beds in there. The door was unlocked and I went in.

He awoke and cursed at me. My heightened anxiety and the counter-wallop of several beers made me react in a talkative way. I said sorry I wasn’t thrilled about disturbing him either. I said it wasn’t my fault. I said I would be quiet and let him sleep. I said I was freaking glad there was another bed. Then I heard Big Daddy chortle in the darkness of the room. He said he didn’t know I could talk so much. He soon returned to his fitful, snoring sleep. I recall he got up before dawn. I wondered if it was his old pilot habits. He was showered and dressed and gone before I even got up.

The next night, one of the guys returned to Charlotte, and I moved into a normal room. It was a great relief.

I don’t recall much of the actual convention. I do have a lingering visual memory of our venerable CFO, Mack Jax, bringing lunch to everyone at the booth: a gigantic bag of miniature Crystal burgers. Very economical, we thought, using a nice word for it.

Stanley & Livingston: the Atlantic City Convention

Hard times across the country went on unabated. Cardinal Associates struggled to turn a profit, so the bosses stepped up a campaign to show force at national trade shows. Those of us in the trenches fretted about holding our jobs, and were happy to travel if it meant we could still get a check for a while.

This company excursion en masse was to the Convention Hall in Atlantic City (for years home to the Miss America pageant). There, in the mornings, CEO Big Daddy and his executive entourage began the day by drinking from Thermos jugs of coffee heavily laced with whiskey. Granted, it was chilly inside the vast old building (so huge it once held the first indoor football game), but their coffees were more for effect than warmth.

I had flown up to Philadelphia the previous evening, as Big Daddy shuffled his writers in and out of Atlantic City. At the Philly airport I happened to meet up with fellow writer Tom W, who had just left the convention. We were like two lost souls suddenly elated to find a kindred spirit. We were like Stanley & Livingston meeting on the strange dark continent.

But we were going in opposite directions. Tom had done his shift and was flying back home to NC. Meanwhile I had to catch the Atlantic City Shuttle, which was actually one of Cardinal’s fleet station wagons on special assignment, taking the troops an hour or two east into Atlantic City.

I expected the place to look friendlier than it did. Apparently we had come here near the end of Atlantic City’s old era, in a time of transition when casinos were coming up on the horizon. The area looked dire, bombed out. Citizens looked unhappy. The dingy gray February sky was filled with fast-moving war clouds.

The hotel where I was reserved was a nondescript place, hidden on upper floors between buildings, with much the look of a low-cost European hostel.

The bellman was a nervous and sweaty middle-aged guy who looked thin with cancer. He unloaded my bags and spoke bluntly. “I’m Gene,” he said. “If you need ice or liquor, call Gene. If you need directions, ask Gene. If you want pussy, Gene can get you that too.”

That night, I went out with fellow writer Randy R and searched the backstreets of Atlantic City for a place to have a beer. We wanted to avoid the clip joints on the Boardwalk, where it was freezing cold anyway. The town’s interior lanes were ominous and confusing, and our knowledge of Monopoly street names was of no use. We entered one neighborhood bar that was pretty hard-core. No music, no TV, no frills, just hard liquor and tough time customers. The bartender didn’t quite follow Randy’s NC accent. I was jittery. I ordered a shot of rye to go with my draft beer. I had never had rye. It just seemed like the kind of place one would drink it.

The next night some of the salesmen took us in their fleet wagon to a belly dancer joint. The food was earthy and tainted. The clientele were reptilian. Two of the salesmen, both aging Southeastern types with standard issue khaki-pants and blue oxford shirts, tried to bribe the belly dancer into leaving. The scene was more embarrassing than fun.

My memory of the convention itself is patchy. We manned the booth all day, our feet killing us, a group of fidgety writers trying to peddle DART modules. The days were long and tedious. Sometimes there were diversions at nearby booths, often some cheesecake models to gawk at.

The morning of the last day, I sat with some of the sales force over breakfast at a marginal cafe on the Boardwalk. One of the reps was a tall, pale guy named Evers, who looked downcast over his soupy scrambled eggs. In a soft, almost inaudible voice, he told me he was looking for another job, that Cardinal was cooked and his health was failing because of it.

The afternoon after the show’s close, those of us still in town were summoned to Big Daddy’s high-rise hotel room in one of the older, once-famous hotels, a rococo-styled building of fading grandeur. We crowded into Big Daddy’s guest suite and began to drink cans of Schmidt’s beer. It felt great to sit on the carpet and take our shoes off.

Big Daddy’s hair was slicked back and he looked tired and somewhat Nixonian. He gave a small pep talk. There was change in the air, he said. Everyone stared into their beer. Big Daddy tried to be optimistic, but didn’t unleash his usual theatrics. Our spirits were low.

After his meeting was over, I went out on the Boardwalk and walked north. Beyond the end of the famous steel pier where horses once dove, a swarm of brown seagulls screeched and flew in wide manic circles above the whitecaps.


For a Gonzo-type history by others as well (featuring the comics of Professor Jones), see the Cardinal history website.


A Look Back at the Original Gilley’s, 1980

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, Blanco TX 1980

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 ©

Enemy of the State

He was leaving when I came in, the Enemy of the State. I didn’t see his face, just his glossy black hair. And he wore a camel-colored sports coat. If I had to guess, he was Italian and about forty. He was on the bulky side like he played football once. I noticed Crissie’s hands were shaking. Her phony welcome smile didn’t hide her anxiety about what just happened when the Enemy of the State visited her clinic. I took my position on the bench, face down, like I do every week. Crissie’s breathing was heavy above me. She put the heel of her palm flat against my lower back and I guess put her other one on top of it and then her weight came next, all five-eight of her. She pushed violently. I heard the grunting noise she always made with the effort, and this one was a little louder. My back popped back into place and I got up and smiled at her with relief. I gave her my usual thirty-dollars. For a second I thought she wasn’t going to take it. There was no time to talk to her. She led me to the door, like she was anxious to have the place empty again. Her tied-up hair had come loose and strands hung in her face in distress. Even so, I remember thinking how pretty she looked as I left. The place closed, and I never went back. A few months later I read in the paper that the clinic was busted. The Enemy of the State was identified and convicted of health insurance fraud. Crissie was found to be complicit and got a sentence as well. They sent her to the Federal Pen in Miami for two years.

Sometime over the holidays in the mid 2000s – I can’t recall exactly, an anonymous phone call came in. A male voice with a thick Long Guyland accent said, “Stay clear of her.”

Three would make her weep

She didn’t know what she was doing. The “CD Hits” jukebox ate her dollars. If a machine could be smug, she thought, this was the one. Her thoughts grew angry. Just like that little chink bitch yesterday at Lucky-Duck 89, she thought. The one who tried to shortchange a twenty for three measly egg rolls.

An adolescent waiter asked if she needed help. She said she was trying to play Best of Bare Naked Ladies. It’s her idea of fine music.

Applebys’ sound system was stuck. Haunting twangy guitars saturated with reverb and Chris Isaak’s plaintive Elvis voice. Endlessly during her solo supper of pasta diablo del mar and brown insta-bread. Toyed-with cellphone, no Incoming’s, spotted with grease marks.

Two glasses of bordeaux. She remembered that three would make her weep.

She paid the tab. Heard Chris still wailing on extended speakers in the bathroom. Saw her moonlike forehead stressed and oily in the mirror, but her eyes cocaine bright. Breasts still right out there, one or two more buttons undone before leaving, the maroon pushup bra doing its best.

Wasn’t sure where to go next, sitting in that new Lexus, not even able to hear it idle.