Urban Cowboy Turns 35

In the summer of 1979, the Houston news and gossip circles were dominated by the presence of one John Travolta, who lived in the city while filming Urban Cowboy in nearby Pasadena. It was only the fourth leading role for the 25-year-old actor, but he was already arguably the world’s biggest movie star. The first two films he had carried, Saturday Night Fever and Grease, were among the highest-grossing movies in the history of Paramount Pictures. Saturday Night Fever had earned Travolta a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and the sound tracks to the two films had become the music industry’s number one and number two all-time best-sellers. Though his most recent film, Moment by Moment, an awkward May-December romance starring him opposite Lily Tomlin, had flopped, he was still a bona fide matinee heartthrob. Teenage girls camped out in cars in front of Memorial-area homes they thought he was renting. At least one found the correct address and was soon evicted from his closet. Houston City magazine reported that bottles of muddy water extracted from an on-set pothole that Travolta’s character had fallen in were selling for $25. Between that and the lowly Astros unexpectedly vying for their first division championship, 1979 might have been the strangest summer Houston had ever seen. 

One year later, the city would start learning what weird really was. On June 5, 1980, Urban Cowboy celebrated its world premiere at, of all places, a suburban Houston cineplex, with a star-studded charity gala afterward hosted by Houston’s leading international socialite, Lynn Wyatt. The party’s location was Gilley’s, the Pasadena nightclub that billed itself as the world’s largest honky-tonk. It had provided the setting for the film, which related the up-and-down romance of Bud and Sissy, two Gilley’s regulars—or Gilleyrats, as the term went—whose young marriage hit the rocks when they encountered the movie’s unbilled third co-star: a mechanical bull. Travolta and Debra Winger, who played Bud and Sissy, attended the after-party, as did their co-stars, a slew of Hollywood execs, an even larger slew of real-life Gilleyrats who’d appeared as extras, a couple dozen of Madame Wyatt’s nearest and dearest, and some 3,500 starstruck Houstonians. The scene was surreal. One report described fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg taking Andy Warhol’s picture while he sat on the mechanical bull taking a picture of her.

In the coming months, mechanical bulls started popping up in bars all over the country. Gaudy Texas chic became a national rage, with an August Time magazine story salivating over $32,000 diamond-beaded hatbands for sale at upscale Western-wear stores in Dallas and Houston. Over the next year, as six singles from the movie’s sound track—a polite mix of pop and light country—scaled Billboard charts, some three hundred radio stations around the United States changed their formats to country music. America was falling for Houston, and more generally Texas, the way schoolgirls fell for Travolta. The Urban Cowboy movement became the first pop-culture craze of the eighties.

In the 35 years since, regard for the film has declined substantially, particularly in Nashville, where the movie’s title has long been synonymous with a watered-down sound. But that’s not entirely fair. Many of the biggest-selling artists lumped into the easy-listening Urban Cowboy vein, singers like Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt, and Anne Murray, were having crossover pop hits well before the movie came out. Country music was so hot at the time, in fact, that two other C&W films—Coal Miner’s Daughter and Honeysuckle Rose—also premiered that year. Even in fashion, freaky cowboy clothes had already moved into vogue, as evidenced by an August 1979 issue of GQ devoted to “The New West” that looks, in hindsight, like a western parody on par with Blazing Saddles. Urban Cowboy merely caught a wave that had yet to crest. But with Travolta atop the marquee, the movement gained momentum and a name.

If that’s on your mind as you watch the movie now—if you’re looking for the birth of the fad—you’re bound to take it lightly. Its hackneyed plot will not convince you otherwise. But there are better ways to watch Urban Cowboy. For one, you could focus on the remarkable Golden Globe–nominated performance of 25-year-old Winger, the opening statement in a career that would earn her three Oscar nominations. But there’s also the way the film let Gilley’s portray itself. Urban Cowboy, as well as the Esquire cover story that inspired it, was based on the lives of actual people. In real life Bud and Sissy were called Dew and Betty. And though they wound up divorced rather than reconciled, for a brief while in the late seventies they loved to spend Friday and Saturday nights two-stepping at Gilley’s, along with four thousand other refinery workers, truck drivers, waitresses, and ranch hands just like them. If you watch Urban Cowboy with an eye for what that was like, you’ll discover a singular moment in Texas history.

Aaron Latham authored the Esquire piece and co-wrote the screenplay: The story was obvious. These kids were coming in from the country to find themselves in a mechanized city, just another cog in the wheel. They needed a place where they could recreate their own world, and it happened to be in a honky-tonk. The bull was the perfect metaphor. It was a machine. If they could conquer that, they’d conquer the city. 

Debra Winger played Sissy: I remember exactly where I was when I read that story: on a mattress on the floor of a friend’s apartment in Hollywood where I used to crash. And I thought, “Fuck! If my career was just this much further along, if I just had an agent. Because I can play the shit out of this girl.”

Jack Larson co-produced the film and was the forty-year companion of its director, James Bridges, who died in 1993: Jim and I thought he was making a genuine, classic western—not out on the range, but in the environs of a bar. 

Charles Ramirez Berg teaches film history and criticism at the University of Texas at Austin: One of the ideas in westerns is time overtaking the cowboy, an almost aching feeling that things aren’t the way they used to be. Well, Urban Cowboy isn’t wide-open spaces and sunsets against the mesa. It’s trailer parks and oil fields. 

Betty Jones was the inspiration for Sissy: The movie showed what life really was like, just normal people living everyday life. But it wasn’t all true. We never lived in a trailer, first off. And they had my daddy as a wrecker driver. My daddy was a trim carpenter. He had his own business. 

Becky Mancuso-Winding was the film’s music coordinator: Irving Azoff [one of the film’s producers] had seen the massive acceptance of the California sound—the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt—which was rooted in country. And you could already hear the Eagles’ influence on Nashville. Irving knew it was time for a crossover, and not just musically. He’d looked at the disco movement and Saturday Night Fever. He knew Urban Cowboy could impact the way people dressed, ate, danced, listened. 

John Travolta played Bud: Urban Cowboy was three-dimensional. You could watch it, and then you could go experience it. You could buy a cowboy hat, get on a mechanical bull, go country dancing. You could live this movie. 

Johnny Lee recorded the sound track’s biggest hit, “Lookin’ for Love”: When that movie was hot, I was shitting in high cotton. I ended up doing a Dick Clark special. He’d formed his all-American band. Stevie Wonder was our piano player, and I played rhythm guitar, up there with all of these big shots. Man, I didn’t know whether to scratch my watch or wind my ass. 

John Dorsey recently completed a documentary on Gilley’s called “Ballad of the Urban Cowboy” that will air in June on CMT: There was a Fantasy Island episode [that aired in 1982] that’s basically the origin story of Gilley’s. Mickey Gilley played himself, and he gets plucked from obscurity by a character named Sherwood Cryer. They must’ve shipped the entire club to Hollywood, including the bull, the stage, and the signage on the walls.

Dew Westbrook was the inspiration for Bud: Urban Cowboy showed how it was to be a young person, hanging out in a bar and working. It’s a lifestyle that’s not the same—but is the same—anywhere else in the country. It’s like Saturday Night Fever. That movie showed what it was like to be a kid dealing with the things they deal with in Brooklyn, New York. This just moved it to Texas. 

Let’s Go to the Videotape

Earyl this year, The Daily Show posted a rapid-fire video montage titled “50 Fox News Lies in 6 Seconds.” Such montages, usually riffing on the day’s news, are a staple of The Daily Show and its offshoots, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and the late, lamented Colbert Report. Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, and Dr. Oz are just a few of the famous figures who have been savaged by these shows’ full-frontal video-clip assaults.

Against All Odds, the Astros Are Off to a Hot Start

We’ll start this with a caveat: The baseball season is long, and where things stand after 20 games is no indication of where they will be after 162. But still, if you’re an Astros fan, you have to be feeling pretty good about the team for the first time in a good while.

Right now, the Houston Astros sit alone atop the American League West, 3 games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels, and 5 games above .500, with a 12–7 record. They’ve won 8 of their last 10 and possess Major League Baseball’s longest winning streak at press time. Rather than just being the leader in a bad division, the Astros actually have the league’s fifth-best record at the moment. We may be only an eighth of the way through the season, but it’s an unexpectedly hot start for the ‘Stros. 

Are the One-Way Streets in Our City Centers Killing Neighborhoods, Causing Crime, and Depressing Property Values?

Here’s a fun debate. Which of the five largest Texas cities has the “best” downtown, the one that’s the most fun as a place to live, work, shop, or enjoy an evening out?

Fort Worth has its partisans, even being named America’s best last year by Livability.com, who praised its “cohesion between cowboy culture and urban sophistication.” With the Riverwalk, the Alamo, some fine old hotels, and a concentration of art deco architecture, San Antonio is a popular choice as well. So too is Austin, which, if more chi-chi than the rest, is today so much more than just Dirty Sixth sleaze and placid views of Lady Bird Lake, all presided over by the majestic and vast Capitol.

I Beg Your Garden?

The joy of riding through Hermann Park on a miniature train never grows old, even if you have. You pay your $3.25,climb aboard, and—whether it’s your first time or your fifty-first—feel a kick of childlike enthusiasm as the wheels start. The 445-acre park is the queen of Houston’s green spaces.

A Teenage Girl From Houston Wrote Her Astronaut Dad a Note He Could See From Space

Having parents who travel for work a lot is tough on a kid. It’s especially hard, presumably, when your dad’s job takes him to outer space.

In a four-minute video released this week, the thirteen-year-old daughter of one of two American astronauts stationed aboard the International Space Station in January managed to convey just how much she missed her dad. With the help of Hyundai (is there anything brands can’t do?), teenage Houston resident Steph—whose last name was not included in the spot, but if you’re curious about which one her dad is, you can figure out with a little Googling—managed to send him a note in her own handwriting that he could see all the way from space.

Attica Locke’s Empire

Attica Locke’s critically acclaimed 2009 debut novel, Black Water Rising, was set in her hometown of Houston and featured a down-on-his-luck lawyer protagonist named Jay Porter, who in many ways was inspired by her father, Gene Locke, the former city attorney of Houston. The sequel, Pleasantville, has just come out, though the final book in what she expects will be a trilogy will likely have to wait a while.

You Say Potato, I Say Batata

You can get in over your head fast at Oporto Fooding House. Everything on the jumbo-sized menu sounds so beguiling—and is so reasonably priced—that ordering too much is unavoidable. “Let’s see, we’ll have the charred carrots with root chips and goat cheese, please,” you tell your waiter. “And the blue-cheese-stuffed dates. Oh, and the risotto croquettes.” Then your friends pipe up, “Can we get the stuffed piquillo peppers?

A Houston Area High School Teacher Gave His Students a Lesson Full of Anti-Muslim Propaganda

Students at Foster High School in Richmond got an, er, off-book lesson during an economics class last month. The teacher—whose name has not been released by the Lamar Consolidated ISD, which oversees the school—distributed an eight-page document called “Islam/Radical Islam (Did You Know)” to his class. As KHOU reports

The handout does not list any sources, but claims things like: “38% of Muslims believe people that leave the faith [sic] should be executed” and that: “There are an estimated 190-300 million ‘radical Islam’ followers.”

The handout talks about Sharia Law, terrorism, jihad, even beheadings and “If taken hostage by radical Islamists, what to do.”

One of the students in the classroom was Muslim. Her parents contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who complained to the school.

CAIR’s Houston director told KHOU 11 News that the Foster HS principal confirmed what the teacher handed out, and said that he is not happy about it.


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