Urban Cowboy Turns 35
Remember those hard-hat days and honky-tonk nights? In an exclusive oral history featuring John Travolta, Debra Winger, Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee, and Barry Corbin, the stars of the film and the regulars at the bar go back in time to talk about the hottest nightclub in Texas history—and shoot a little (mechanical) bull.
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.
The sign outside may have read “Gilley’s,” but Fantasy Island got it right: the club’s driving force was Sherwood Cryer. Born in 1927 and raised on a farm in Diboll, he’d moved to Pasadena after World War II. Located thirty minutes southeast of Houston, the town had been a center for crude oil processing since the twenties and was experiencing a postwar boom; Cryer found work welding in a Shell Oil refinery. Unassuming but ambitious, he started buying up area land and opening businesses, a junkyard here, an icehouse there, and by 1970, with Pasadena’s population having grown to nearly 90,000 people—fully four times what it had been when Cryer arrived—he was the power player in town. Not that you would have known it to look at him.
Johnny Lee: He used to wear those old zip-up jumpsuits. Never smoked, never drank. He looked like the janitor at Gilley’s.
Raymond Land worked for Cryer: He always wore blue coveralls with black Wellington boots. And when he was supposed to dress up, he’d say, “Let me get my dinner jacket,” which was a blue-jean jacket with fur around the collar.
Bruce Nelson was a DJ at Houston’s KENR-AM: He ran half of Pasadena out of a pocket in his coveralls. He had a pocket protector with a bunch of business cards and scraps of paper. I was a huge fan of his, but he was nobody to mess with.
Johnny Lee: One time he said to me, “There’s an old boy who keeps picking fights in Gilley’s and running my business off. But I know where that son of a bitch is, so get in the truck.” We went into this icehouse Sherwood owned, and he told me to stand by the door so no one could leave. He grabbed a pool cue, walked over to the guy, and hit him upside the head. Whupped his ass and told him never to come back to Gilley’s. That’s just the way shit was.
Raymond Land: He started with one little beer joint over on the corner of Red Bluff and Spencer, and then he built some convenience stores. He had four of those, three liquor stores, several beer joints that he rented out. And of course, all those beer joints had to have his machines in them.
Gator Conley was a Gilleyrat who also worked for Cryer: He had a vending machine company, Art’s Music and Cigarette Service, with video games, pinball, pool tables, jukeboxes, and he kept them in the club, kind of like a storage center. If someone needed a particular machine, he’d have us clean one up and get it to them.
Johnny Lee: Being tight like he was, he was slow to put AC in at Gilley’s. He wanted people to get hot so they’d drink cold beer. And these old cowboys used to hide whiskey bottles out by the fence instead of buying drinks inside. Sherwood found out where they hid them, and he’d go piss in them. Oh, and I did see him one time bet a drunk guy $500 that he couldn’t sit on a block of ice and jack off, which, by the way, can’t be done.
The seat of the empire was located at 4500 Spencer Highway and originally called Shelly’s, after the nickname Cryer earned working at Shell. It was modest-sized when he opened it, in the early sixties, with a metal roof, roll-up garage doors for walls, and electricity that ran only to the bandstand. He started a piecemeal expansion that never really stopped. His first master stroke came in 1971, when he hired Mickey Gilley to be the house entertainer. Gilley was no big deal then, a local performer best known for being Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin.
Mickey Gilley is a country singer and the honky-tonk’s namesake: I’d always had a pretty big business doing a tribute to my cousin at a club up Spencer Highway called the Nesadel. But I wasn’t selling records. So Sherwood showed me his place, and we chatted about how I thought he should rebuild it, fix the acoustics, get tile on his dance floor, and he said, “Would you join me?” I said, “You gonna give me half?” He said, “Absolutely.” Then he said he wanted to call it Gilley’s. I loved that.
Raymond Land: Gilley thought Sherwood was just blowing smoke, but Sherwood also had a sign shop. He designed the sign, built it, and put it up. When Gilley saw it, he couldn’t believe it.
Mickey Gilley: Pretty quick I got a local TV show on Saturday nights. I’d been pulling about four hundred to six hundred people on weekends, but that picked up. Then Minnie Elerick, who ran Sherwood’s vending machine company because he didn’t want it in his name [Elerick was Cryer’s longtime companion], saw me do “She Called Me Baby All Night Long” on TV and asked me to record it. I said, “What for?” And she said, “I’ve got three hundred jukeboxes spread through Houston and Pasadena, and I’ll put it on every one. It’ll be good for you at the club.” So I recorded it and I put an old song, “Room Full of Roses,” on the B side and barely gave a crap one way or the other about it.
Bruce Nelson: I listened to both sides, and the one I liked was “Room Full.” We started playing it on a Thursday afternoon, and by Monday morning we’d had an extraordinary amount of phone calls for it. Suddenly, Mickey had a number one record in Houston.
Mickey Gilley: A friend in Nashville told me that Hugh Hefner and Playboy Rec-ords wanted to get into country music, because Hefner’s girlfriend Barbi Benton was on the Hee Haw, so he wanted her to sing country. They signed me, released the record, and it went straight to number one nationally.
As Mickey Gilley’s fortunes rose—his next three singles also topped Billboard’s country chart—so did Pasadena’s, with skyrocketing oil prices turning Cryer’s fiefdom into a boomtown. Refinery workers flooded into the area for jobs, and at night they all went to Gilley’s. The club now sprawled across three and a half acres, its dance floor the size of a basketball court and often presided over by Johnny Lee, who’d replaced the constantly touring Gilley as one of the house’s featured performers. The games area grew to hold fifty pool tables, a prove-your-manliness punching-bag machine, and the piece of equipment that would come to define Gilley’s, a mechanical bull.
Norman Tucker was a Gilleyrat and a former rodeo cowboy: Everything was really down-to-earth. On breaks the musicians would walk around, get a drink, tell you stories. I remember sitting in the parking lot one night with Conway Twitty, just having a conversation.
Don “Cowboy” Hoofard was a Gilleyrat who worked for Cryer: We had a nice, tight little group, 35 to 40 of us that were there three or four nights a week. You were never alone when you went to Gilley’s.
Gator Conley: My group hung out around the dance floor, but there was another that gravitated around the punching bag, and people who would group up around the latest arcade games, and others, of course, over around the bull.
Norman Tucker: Sherwood had been talking about buying a mechanical bull, then all of a sudden he was drilling bolt holes in the floor and gathering up mattresses. You needed forty or fifty mattresses on the floor around it.
Gator Conley: Somebody would be driving around, see a mattress, and then they’d call in, “There’s one over here.” We’d go find it, and if it wasn’t too stained, we’d grab it.
Mickey Gilley: I told Sherwood that putting that bull in was a mistake, that these plant workers trying to play cowboy would get hurt. And we had lawsuits on it. I think he paid off quite a few people.
Norman Tucker: Sherwood used to tell me, “Go ride that damn bucking machine and get some people over there.” I’d get free beer for that. And I got to be kind of a shyster on it. I would stand around acting like I was drunk, and guys would start talking about how good they rodeoed, and I’d say, “I’ll bet you twenty dollars I can beat you.” I don’t think I ever lost.
Mickey Gilley: Sherwood started putting those Gilley’s bumper stickers out, and it got to where you couldn’t drive in Houston without seeing one.
Johnny Lee: They said if you didn’t want a sticker on your car, just put your visor down when you parked. That was bullshit.
Mickey Gilley: I had a guy call up once and say he was going to sue us for defacing his car. Got to talking to him, and what had happened was he’d told his wife he was going out to play cards, but he came to Gilley’s. When she put the garbage out the next morning and saw that sticker, she came uncorked. Cost him a divorce.
Gilley’s became a national commodity in September 1978, when Esquire published “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit,” a piece assigned by legendary magazine editor Clay Felker. As the co-founder of New York magazine, he’d championed New Journalism, and among the notable stories he’d run was “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” a 1976 story by Nik Cohn that was made into Saturday Night Fever. In the summer of 1978, Felker, then the editor at Esquire, spoke at a publishing course at Rice University organized in part by Texas Monthly.
Aaron Latham: Texas Monthly asked Clay what he needed for an honorarium, and he said he didn’t want one. Instead, he wanted a tour of Houston by night.
William Broyles Jr. was the editor of Texas Monthly: I took him to Gilley’s. I’d hung out there multiple times, and it was so much a part of the world I was from that I didn’t see it as a story, whereas Clay saw these people coming in from the country with their cowboy cultural map still in their head. That’s why we drive pickups in River Oaks, right? So we walk through acres of parking lot, past a fistfight or two, and as we got closer, we could hear the sound of it. Once we got inside, it assaulted us: people hitting the punching bag, two-stepping, hundreds of them gathered at the bar, and over in the corner the mechanical bull. Clay was in his New York suit and handmade English shoes. I could see his eyes get really wide. I thought, “This is great.”
Aaron Latham: When Clay saw four thousand people dressed up like cowboys—and the bull and the punching bag—he could hardly contain his excitement. He hid it from the Texas Monthly people, but at three o’clock in the morning, my phone rang in Washington and he told me to get on the next plane to Houston. I was there the next night.
Latham was the perfect writer for the story. A native of Spur, he was the great-grandson of a Texas Ranger and the son of a high school football coach. But he also had a Ph.D. in English from Princeton and had made his name as Felker’s primary Watergate reporter at New York. In 1978 he was living in a Georgetown penthouse with his new wife, CBS anchor Lesley Stahl.
Aaron Latham: This was a Texas I hadn’t seen. On the one hand, the cowboys inside all looked like my cousins, but I still felt a little like Margaret Mead wading ashore at Samoa. I’d been looking for some time for a true love story to write. So I went in searching for a handsome cowboy and a pretty cowgirl who had fallen in love there. But the guy needed to work at a refinery. That embodied the Houston we were talking about. Every girl I interviewed had met her boyfriend or husband at Gilley’s, but none of them were refinery workers. So I was getting desperate around closing time, when in came this girl who rode the bull standing up.
Betty Jones: Aaron was back watching the bull with Steve Strange [the main bull operator], and Steve started hollering at me to come over. I yelled, “I’m coming, I’m coming.” And he hollered back, “No, you’re not. You’re not breathing hard enough.” Well, with Aaron back there, everyone thought that was hilarious. And I’m thinking, “One of these days I’m gonna quit saying that.”
But yeah, I enjoyed playing on the bull. I could sit and ride it up to six, which was pretty rough for a girl. But I liked to play on it, do flips off the back of it and turn around on it.
Aaron Latham: She said, “I met my husband here. We fell in love, got married, and had our wedding reception here.” I asked what he did for a living, and she said he installed insulation. I was devastated, but then she added, “. . . in a refinery.” I said, “How’s the marriage going?” Well, they’re separated. “What happened?” He told her not to ride the bull, she rode anyway, rode it better than he did, and his ego couldn’t stand it. I thought, “That’s it.”
Betty Jo Helmer (now Betty Jones) and Donald Edwin Westbrook were eighteen and nineteen, respectively, when they told Latham their story. They’d both grown up in Pasadena, and they had both started going to Gilley’s when they were seventeen. When their paths finally crossed a year or so later, she was still living at home, and he had a new nickname bestowed by co-workers at the refinery: Dew.
Betty Jones: He asked me to dance, and we danced all night long. Then we dated for a couple months before we got married.
Dew Westbrook: Actually, I think she asked me to dance. Her, her sister, and her mom were there.
Betty Jones: The day before we got married, he decided to rebuild his carburetor in the driveway behind my mama’s car. Well, he couldn’t get it fixed. He was out there until midnight working on it. My mother called him an idiot.
Dew Westbrook: It actually started turning bad when her mom kept butting into our business. Betty’d eat dinner at their house four or five times a week. I wanted my wife with me, at our house.
Betty Jones: He had wanted to get married at Gilley’s, and I said, “I’m not getting married at the club.” He said we’d need to get married at his church then, which turned out to be the Salvation Army church. I was like, “Oooookay.” Sherwood did let us use Gilley’s for the reception, but we had to be through by six o’clock so the club could open. Then for the next year we mostly stayed at home, playing games or watching TV. We couldn’t afford much. But Friday and Saturday night we would go to Gilley’s.
Dew Westbrook: She started riding the bull on one of those nights when we got into a fight. A couple nights later I come in and see her doing tricks on it, and then we kind of made up for a little bit.
Betty Jones: I didn’t even think about riding that bull until we’d split up. We’d already filed for divorce. I’m a chicken all the way around about pain. But he kept telling me I’d better not ride it. So eventually I thought, “Piss on you, Jack, I’m riding.” And I got good at it.
Dew Westbrook: What she was doing—spinning around, standing up—was better than me. I didn’t do trick-riding. But if she was to ride against me in a contest, she wouldn’t have won.
Aaron Latham: Clay always said the strongest vehicle for communication ever invented is the narrative, and this love story provided one. When the piece came out, I was vacationing on Nantucket, and the phone started ringing instantly with people trying to buy it. I’d had movie interest on stories before, but this was one hundred people calling.
The rights were won by Irving Azoff for an astounding $200,000, and he quickly partnered with Paramount Pictures. Azoff was a music guy, an L.A.-based manager who oversaw the careers of huge acts like the Eagles and Steely Dan. But he had been involved in the production of only one film, 1978’s feather-light radio send-up, FM. The movie had tanked, though the sound track, featuring a healthy sampling of Azoff artists, had sold 2.5 million copies. Azoff had also reportedly dismissed Saturday Night Fever as “a little disco movie” and counseled one of his primary clients, Dallas-raised R&B singer Boz Scaggs, to decline an offer to appear on its sound track. Concerned that Azoff couldn’t make Urban Cowboy on his own, Paramount assigned the storied Robert Evans (The Godfather, Chinatown) to co-produce and bring the movie in within the studio’s $11.2 million budget. But Jim Bridges was Azoff’s choice to co-write and direct. He’d been nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for 1973’s The Paper Chase, which he’d also directed. Once he was on board, the search began for an actor to fill the title role.
Aaron Latham: Azoff called and said, “I’ve got a director for us, Jim Bridges. Let’s meet for breakfast at the Polo Lounge [in Beverly Hills].” Then Azoff didn’t come. So how do I find Bridges? He was the only guy in the lobby wearing cowboy boots. We sit down, and he tells me he’s from Paris, Arkansas, which sounded a whole lot like Spur. I’d already written half the screenplay, and I gave it to him, and all my interview notebooks. We’d each go home at night and write some pages, and the dialogue would wind up being eerily the same. We were really tuned in to each other.
John Travolta: I was signed to do American Gigolo, but I felt like the script was too reminiscent of Moment by Moment. So I asked to get out, and Paramount said I’d have to do two movies to replace it. That’s when Urban Cowboy came up.
Jack Larson: Jim hadn’t even thought of John; his first thought was Dennis Quaid. But Jim was in Pasadena doing some scouting when John got ahold of the script and wanted to do it so badly he flew to Texas with a portfolio of photographs of him playing Bo in Bus Stop [Travolta had performed in a 1976 touring production of the William Inge play].
Aaron Latham: I thought it was crazy, a big mistake. Then Travolta came in for a meeting and was great. There’s just something about him.
John Travolta: Right away I went to Texas to rub elbows with cowboys, real and urban, and it was a revelation. I was used to New York and L.A., where people looked over each other’s shoulders at parties for someone more interesting to talk to. These Texans just wanted to have a beer, a whiskey, and a fantastic time. I spent a good month hanging out with them, and another training at my ranch in Santa Barbara, where I’d installed a mechanical bull and a dance floor.
Dwight Adair was the film’s dialect coach: The first thing Jim asked me to do was put on a Texan accent and read the entire script—dialogue, screen directions, everything—onto a cassette tape. For three weeks, John drove around L.A. listening to it in his car.
Making Urban Cowboy Travolta’s vehicle relieved pressure to fill out the cast with other big names. The first choice for the female lead was Sissy Spacek, but according to Latham, she and Travolta didn’t click when she visited his ranch. So the team cast a wide net. At that point Debra Winger’s biggest role was as Wonder Woman’s younger sister on the ABC superhero series. But she knew something of cowboys from visiting her boyfriend’s cabin in Ruidoso. And she was intent on getting the part.
Debra Winger: I knew they were seeing actresses, though I wasn’t on that list. So I just put on my Ruidoso garb and my Sissy face and snuck onto the Paramount lot. It was lunchtime, and I was sitting on the steps outside Robert Evans’s office when these two guys walk toward me, one with a beard, the other with his hair sticking up. And they’re checking me out—Sissy always had her jaw out. The guy with the hair was Jim, and he said, “Who are you?” I said, “Who do you want me to be?” He took me in for a screen test, and somebody said, “Who’s she?” Jim said, “She’s Sissy.”
I hadn’t seen a script. All I had was the Esquire story and the girl in my head. So he started giving me scenes, and I thought, “Really? This is so easy it’s stupid.” I understood the whole thing: her womanhood, the redneck thing, the kind of shame that leads you to do stupid things for love, the tough veneer she had.
Aaron Latham: We did screen tests with about fifteen girls, then met in the big theater at Paramount. Evans was there and several other executives. As each screen test came up, Evans would announce if the girl was “fuckable” or not. We came to Debra’s screen test, and Evans said, “I wouldn’t fuck her with a ten-foot pole.”
Debra Winger: I just believed I was going to get the part, so before they’d said anything, I got in my car, drove to Pasadena, and got a job waitressing at Gilley’s. Before long a girlfriend called and said, “Your answering machine’s got a lot of messages. You better get home.”
Aaron Latham: Debra and Michelle Pfeiffer made the short list, and when Debra walked into the next audition, I was convinced she was Sissy. But the studio couldn’t make up its mind. So we flew the girls to Houston to audition on the bull.
Jack Larson: Jim went to meet Debra at the plane in Texas, and there was no Debra on it. He called Don Simpson [then head of production at Paramount], who said, “Evans doesn’t want her in his film, so we took her off the plane.” Jim said, “You get her on the next plane to Texas or you don’t have a director.” Then Travolta took the phone from Jim and added, “And you don’t have a star.”
John Travolta: We were dead set on Debra.
The remaining characters were very much secondary to Bud and Sissy. The role of Bud’s uncle Bob would be the first feature-film job for Lubbock-raised Barry Corbin. Aunt Corene would be played by Brooke Alderson, who grew up in Dallas and was best known as Big Sal the Truck Driver from Alpo commercials. Bud and Sissy’s interloping love interests, the rich Houston girl Pam and the villainous ex-con Wes Hightower, were among the last to be cast.
Madolyn Smith played Pam: So I met the choreographer, Patsy Swayze, Patrick’s mom, and she and Patrick showed me a couple of country dances and handed me off to John. We two-stepped, then pretty fast after that he said, “Would you like to be in my movie?”
Aaron Latham: When Scott Glenn [who’d had small roles in 1975’s Nashville and 1979’s More American Graffiti] came in, he put on a cowboy hat we had hanging in the office. He looked like Howdy Doody. So we passed on him and interviewed about a thousand other people to play Wes. Just before we went to Houston, we called Scott back and said, “This time bring your own hat.” Now he looked like a cowboy.
Barry Corbin played Bud’s uncle Bob: Glenn never broke character. He always walked around in that fishnet T-shirt, scowling. All these dangerous guys in Gilley’s were terrified of him. Really, he’s just a hippie potter from Idaho.
Gloria Gresham was the costume designer: I wanted that shirt to say, “I’m the odd man out, and I’m tough. Leave me alone.”
Aaron Latham: I was stunned she picked that for Glenn, but it was worth it for Gator’s ad-libbed line: “Looks like that shirt’s made out of his mama’s hairnet.”
Jack Larson: Evans didn’t like Scott Glenn either. He told me after he saw Scott’s entrance on the dailies, “He looks like a gay Broadway cowboy.”
Initially Paramount wanted to recreate Gilley’s on the studio backlot, but Azoff and Bridges insisted on taking the production to the source, and they prevailed. Their victory guaranteed a level of authenticity but brought some obstacles as well, not the least of which would be Cryer’s insistence that filming end by six each day so he could open for business at night. As preproduction continued, those would not be the lone headaches.
Dew Westbrook: I told Jim Bridges and Paramount Pictures that I didn’t think Travolta oughta play me. Too disco.
Aaron Latham: When Travolta heard Dew was upset, he wanted to meet him. So we fly to Houston and go to Dew’s little apartment, and the first thing he says is, “You can’t play me, you’re typecast from Saturday Night Fever. Remember that guy in Superman [the fifties-era TV show starring George Reeves]? He killed himself because he was typecast.” At that point all the executives essentially jumped out the window, leaving just me, Travolta, Bridges, and Dew. As soon as we got Travolta alone, we saw he wasn’t upset.
John Travolta: I didn’t worry about that. I realized it was personal for him, and I wasn’t real to him yet. I knew when he saw me in the getup, with the accent, the bull, and the dancing, he’d turn around.
Gloria Gresham: The person who really wanted my job was Ralph Lauren. Western wear was the craze in New York, people buying $1,000 pairs of boots on Madison Avenue. But there’s a difference between a fashion designer and a costume designer. A costume designer dresses actors to tell a specific story. They’re not going down a runway, they have to look real.
Chris Howell was the stunt coordinator: We modified the bucking machine because it was just too easy to ride. We put hydraulic brakes on it so we could reverse it quicker and stop it on an exact mark for the camera.
Reynaldo Villalobos was the cinematographer: I lit the bull to look special. There’s always a shaft of light coming down on it, almost like through a church window.
Aaron Latham: It was hard to make it seem like Wes could outride Bud, because Travolta really was the best rider at Gilley’s. To build up Scott, Bridges just upped the bull’s speed on-screen without actually changing it.
Barry Corbin: Uncle Bob had rodeoed when he was younger, and at first they wanted me to ride that mechanical bull in the movie. I trained a little bit on it, then went to Jim and said, “I don’t think Bob would need to prove anything to anybody. Maybe he wouldn’t get on this thing.”
Gloria Gresham: We went through masses of jeans for John, everything from Lee to Levi’s and even Ralph Lauren. It wasn’t so much how they looked but how they felt. He’s a dancer, so he needed a certain tightness. We went with Gap jeans, then sanded them with a snuff can in the pocket to make them look aged. For his shirts, at first he just wore a plain, old-fashioned, worn-cotton Western shirt. As the film goes on and he becomes this celebrity at Gilley’s, the clothes get a little more special. By the end he’s wearing custom-made satin Western shirts.
Debra Winger: The first day I saw Evans on the set, I had the makeup man put purple dots all over my chest, ripped open my shirt, and said, “See that? Ten-foot-pole marks.”
An ongoing battle pitted Bridges and Latham against Azoff, whose commitment to authenticity stopped at the music. His eye was on crossover commercial appeal, and his initial plan had been for an all-Eagles sound track. When that proved unworkable, he still pushed to get as many of his own artists into the movie as possible. The job of balancing that with Bridges’s desire for accuracy fell to Becky Mancuso-Winding, an L.A. record exec who had left a job at Epic to make Urban Cowboy.
Becky Mancuso-Winding: Eventually Irving started throwing in other artists. Yes, it had to have Mickey Gilley, because the club was called Gilley’s. But he wanted that kept to a minimum. Irving would say, “This is not a trailer park, Becky. You can have the trailer park in the film but not on the sound track.”
Aaron Latham: Irving wanted “Cotton-Eyed Joe” kept out so badly that he threatened to get a temporary restraining order.
Jack Larson: Jim didn’t want the Eagles. He wanted the songs he’d grown up with, the music they played at Gilley’s. He wanted Johnny Lee.
Johnny Lee: Azoff came out one night and heard me do “Cherokee Fiddle,” which was a big hit for me in Houston. He said, “You want to sing it in a movie?” Well, people were bullshitting me all the time. So I said, “Yeah, sure, just as soon as I finish this watermelon. You bet.”
Becky Mancuso-Winding: It was always going to be a blend of what would work on-camera, what they would dance to at Gilley’s, and what was on the radio when Bud pulls up at the trailer. You couldn’t bring Bob Seger in to play Gilley’s. But you could absolutely have him on the truck radio.
Filming began on Monday, July 2, on a small farm 45 minutes west of Houston, near Wallis. This would be Urban Cowboy’s opening sequence, with Wallis subbing for Latham’s native Spur. Buford Uling Davis, or “Bud,” is a bearded country boy headed for the big city. He moves in with his aunt and uncle, and after a first family dinner together, they take him to Gilley’s.
Barry Corbin: John had that beard because he’d been playing with his dog just before shooting started, and the dog bit him on the face and put a little scar on his lip. But Paramount said, “He can’t have a beard. He’s John Travolta. We’ve got to see his face.” So Jim and Aaron had to write in that scene where he shaved. The transformation was dramatic. When Sissy first approaches him at Gilley’s, you get that profile, in that black cowboy hat. There he is.
Aaron Latham: “Are you a real cowboy?” was not in the script that was given to everybody. We came up with that the morning we shot the scene. I thought, “This is what the movie is about.”
John Travolta: Bud believes he’s a real cowboy. He was brought up on a ranch, he can ride a horse, herd cattle, and rodeo on a certain level. He believes it.
Debra Winger: Sissy’s just needling him with a flirtatious, provocative question. She’s basically saying, “Are you a real man?”
Winger and Travolta brought entirely different approaches to their roles. She practiced her own variant of method acting, essentially living Sissy’s life. She drove Sissy’s beat-up red Mustang on days off, hung with Gilleyrats at night, and learned how to dance from Gator. Travolta was Bud only in the moments between “Action!” and “Cut!” But whatever else can be said about the movie, their on-screen chemistry was real.
Aaron Latham: Debra was always trying to make John more emotional. If we had a fight scene, she wanted a real fight. John didn’t want to go there. When we shot the diner scene where she pinches his arm and he slaps her, Debra got him so worked up that he knocked a front tooth out. It flew across the diner.
John Travolta: I felt terrible about it. I guess we were just really in the moment.
Debra Winger: We kept shooting. I was afraid to tell anyone because I thought they’d fire me. I spent the next day having a cap made.
Aaron Latham: The parking lot scene after that was supposed to be funny [when Sissy refuses to get in Bud’s truck and they fall into a rain-filled pothole, culminating in his knee-jerk wedding proposal], but nobody laughed when we played it for them. Finally, Jim added some banjo music under it, and everybody got it.
Dwight Adair: “Fine! Fergit it!” John, Debra, Jim—everybody—delighted in those words, tacked them at the end of whatever was said. It summarized this tempestuous relationship. “Fine! Fergit it!”
John Travolta: That was everybody’s favorite line. “Fine! Fergit it! . . . You wanna get married?”
Aaron Latham: Debra wore Betty’s actual wedding dress. She was so excited it fit.
Debra Winger: John and I went shopping at a Western-wear store, and I grabbed these white cowboy boots. I could see Sissy lifting the wedding dress to show those boots. Jim gave a resounding red stamp of “no,” but he came around, obviously.
Jim Ed Norman produced two songs on the sound track: I found this song I thought could work in the movie as a duet for Anne Murray and Kenny Rogers. I cut a demo on it with just Anne, and Bridges fell in love with that version. It was “Could I Have This Dance.”
Aaron Latham: It was the perfect song for them to dance to at the reception. There was supposed to be a sex scene in Bud’s pickup truck afterward, but we decided we didn’t need it, or the wedding scene we’d shot either. You got to know everything you needed from watching that dance.
“Could I Have This Dance” is just one of the movie’s songs that, in validation of Azoff’s vision, would go on to climb multiple Billboard charts. But it was maybe fourth on the list of hits most readily identifiable with the movie. The process of finding those songs occupied Mancuso-Winding throughout the entire production.
Johnny Lee: Becky put me up in this hotel room with a million cassette tapes of songs people had submitted. Within the first fifteen songs, I pulled out “Lookin’ for Love.” I couldn’t believe I hadn’t written it myself, it was the story of my life up till then. I changed the rhythm on it, turned it into a two-step, and they put it in the movie.
Jim Ed Norman: Gilley hadn’t wanted to work with me. I was this L.A. producer who’d spend hours working just on the drum sound. And when I first heard him, I thought he was doing Jerry Lee Lewis sideways, just kinda yelling. He’s an energetic guy. If I could just get him to sing, he had a nice voice. I had a satchel full of old songs, and one of them was “Stand by Me,” the old Ben E. King hit. I thought what it expressed would be great in the movie. So I took all day working on it with Gilley. He’d sing the vocal, then I’d ask for another, and another, and another. Finally around four p.m. I saw him leaning against the wall, exhausted. For me, that’s the metaphor. He was so tired he’d started singing [slurs his voice], “Whenthenight, hascome.”
Becky Mancuso-Winding: Boz [Scaggs] and David Foster [a Canadian composer whose biggest hit at that time was “After the Love Has Gone,” by Earth, Wind & Fire] were assigned to write a song because Boz was in Irving’s camp, and he was perfect for Madolyn’s character. She was sophisticated, but Texan. She wasn’t going to listen to Tony Bennett. She needed something cool. So Jim and I asked them for a seductive love song, something with some tenderness. Yeah, Bud was cheating on his wife with this beautiful girl, but it wasn’t going anywhere. We only got the tape the night before shooting the scene, and the song wasn’t done yet. It was rough, just a beat and a melody with Boz humming. And it was magical.
Madolyn Smith: Boz saw the footage of John and me slow-dancing to the instrumental, and that’s when he added lyrics and the title, “Look What You’ve Done to Me.” Before that they called it “Pam’s Theme.”
The Gilleyrats were vital, not just in prepping the stars but in the production itself. Many of them quit their jobs to be extras in the three-month-long shoot. During filming they filled the dance floor and surrounded the bull, and during downtime they played country music they liked on a jam box for Mancuso-Winding and gave opinions on songs Azoff had sent. And they hosted a string of celebrities who stopped by the set, people like Billy Crystal and Jessica Tandy and, on one particularly strange day, controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who was opening a show of homoerotic photographs at a Houston gallery that night. The Gilleyrats were unfazed.
Norman Tucker: My mom was even in the movie. She’d just gotten laid off from U.S. Steel, in Baytown, and when I told Jim Bridges about it, he said she could be an extra. She made something like $50 a day and ended up being in the Dolly Parton Look-alike Contest.
Jessie Mapes was a Gilleyrat who played Sissy’s best friend, Jessie: Me and Cooper Huckabee [who played Bud’s best friend, Marshall] were supposed to be a couple in the movie, but I missed our diner scene together because I was in the hospital having my son. But I was back on the set the next night, and that’s when we did the scene where I talk about having ridden the bull that day and how I was sore as hell. I was not lying. I hurt. Jim Bridges had a nanny come babysit my newborn in his motor home.
Gloria Gresham: We had to turn the air-conditioning off because it was pulling the smoke effect out. So it’s the middle of the afternoon, at least 100 degrees outside, in a facility with a tin roof and lots of fake smoke. The kids were throwing up and fainting. It was so bad that John’s boots would get soaking wet during the dancing, like they’d been in a tub of water. I had to have triples for each pair because halfway through the day we would have to get him dry boots.
Jessie Mapes: It was supposed to be midnight in a dance hall and us acting like we’re having fun. It was then brought to their attention that it’s 130 degrees in this building and definitely not fun. So about two weeks into the shoot, Paramount opened the bar—for the entire rest of filming. Not only are we getting fed three meals a day, we’re drinking on Paramount’s dime.
Becky Mancuso-Winding: Lynn Wyatt threw this classy dinner party in River Oaks that was so Texas money, this over-the-top, dripping-diamonds kind of thing. Travolta went with his entourage and Jim and Aaron. Talk about a crazy juxtaposition. The next day we were back shit-kickin’ at Gilley’s.
Reynaldo Villalobos: We’d show up in the morning to shoot, and the bathroom would be covered with blood. And Sherwood would walk around with a stiff leg—because he’d keep a shotgun in his pants.
Bruce Nelson: I remember standing at the front bar with Sherwood, and he looked at me and said, “My boy, what we’ve got here is a bird’s nest on the ground, if we just empty it one egg at a time.”
When Bud and Sissy’s relationship sours, they take turns cheating, and perhaps the film’s finest sequence shows Bud and Sissy eyeing each other across the dance floor while two-stepping to “Stand by Me” with their respective paramours, Pam and Wes. Neither of those characters had appeared in the Esquire story, but both had roots in reality. Dew really had found a girlfriend before divorcing Betty, and she later became his second wife, but she was hardly a rich girl. While Betty didn’t take a lover, Wes Hightower was no invention. Latham learned after the story came out that the best friend he’d made at Gilley’s, one of the bull operators, was actually an escaped convict. That man became the basis for Wes.
Madolyn Smith: At first Debra and I related to each other as these nobody brunettes who didn’t have big boobs or blond hair. We even hung out a little, did some laundry, had a sleepover. But then it turned. After I had my first scene, we all went to Ninfa’s. Jim sat by me and made a big deal of celebrating my first day. I looked across the table, and Debra was just staring at me. She came over, knelt down, and said, “Would you just stop it?” I said, “Stop what?” and she goes, “Oh, just doing what you do.”
Debra Winger: Once Bud cheated, Sissy realized it’s not a game and she’d better get with a real cowboy. Scott made that easy. He was like the Marlboro Man. I stayed at a little motel with the crew, and each morning I’d hear thump-ta-thump-ta-thump before the sun was even up. It was Scott jumping rope. That was my alarm clock.
Aaron Latham: Scott told us about a tequila with a worm in the bottle. We said, “My God!” Then we wrote a scene around it.
Charles Ramirez Berg: When Wes drinks it, he says, “La vida luna, the crazy life.” That tells you how many Latinos were on the set.
John Travolta: Youth and bravado gave Bud a naive approach to Wes. Bud had been in bar fights and had this romantic notion he was tough. He didn’t realize Wes was a different category of guy.
Debra Winger: Wes was supposed to hit me, but I couldn’t do it. I told Jim, “It’s too easy. A guy hits you once, it’s fucked up, but you can get it straight. A guy hits you twice, then you like it. But if it’s humiliation, well, Sissy already feels bad about herself. Let’s tap into that.” Then Scott, Jim, and I worked out that “Pick up the cigarettes” thing.
The plot doesn’t wind down so much as explode. Uncle Bob dies in a refinery accident, but not before giving Bud the kind of backwoods-Yoda counsel that would become a hallmark of Barry Corbin characters. His death provides whatever inspiration Bud didn’t already have to best Wes on the bull at Gilley’s All-Indoor Rodeo. And then, after the depth of Wes’s depravity is finally revealed, Bud beats the hell out of him, reunites with Sissy, and drives off into the night with the little “Sissy” license plate restored to its rightful spot in his pickup’s back window.
Barry Corbin: Jim had a problem with my last speech and asked if I could flesh that out, make it sing a little. I took a napkin and wrote that part about how “without Corene and the kids, I’d just be another old pile of dog shit in the cantaloupe patch, drawing flies.” Jim told me not to tell John about it, so when he laughed, that was real.
Jack Larson: When they did the cemetery scene after Uncle Bob died, Debra came looking ragged and haggard. Jim asked what happened. She had spent the night in the cemetery.
Debra Winger: I hadn’t been to a lot of funerals. I was curious enough about cemeteries just as Debra.
Aaron Latham: We were never satisfied with the way Aunt Corene persuaded Bud to be in the bull-riding contest. I’d written it over and over. I wanted her to say, “Your uncle Bob would want you there,” but without saying it. At the last minute I made it about Bob’s belt buckle. We filmed that in her yard with petroleum towers in the background. The crew was all crying.
Becky Mancuso-Winding: Charlie Daniels performed the first song in the dance contest, but then Irving wanted to switch to something else. He wanted REO Speedwagon to play “Take It on the Run.” It became a huge hit, but it wasn’t going to work.
John Travolta: We did everything to make it authentic, and now you want something that doesn’t make sense? Saturday Night Fever and Grease didn’t have arbitrary songs that didn’t correlate to the story or the locale. You have to be careful when you’re throwing dimes at a phone booth hoping one gets in.
Aaron Latham: Bridges always said the movie would cost about $12.5 million. Well, we were coming in at our budget, but not the studio’s. So they pulled us back to Hollywood. That’s where we shot the end of the movie, the holdup at the bar, the fight between Bud and Wes. They built the entrance to Gilley’s on a soundstage and flew in all the extras.
Jack Larson: Jim was unhappy about that. He wanted to shoot John and Scott’s fight in the Gilley’s parking lot, rolling over trucks and under cars.
Barry Corbin: It was funny—when Scott comes in, he was supposed to rob Sherwood. But Sherwood said, “You can’t rob me because that’s not realistic. You’d have to kill me to get my money. Put Minnie in there. Rob her.”
Aaron Latham: We rewrote the ending every day for one hundred days, and the idea that Sissy might say, “I only thought I wanted a real cowboy,” came in and out. Finally I left it out. I decided she probably did want a real cowboy.
John Travolta: Pam encouraged Bud to go back to Sissy, but he would’ve done it anyhow. He was always honest with Pam. She asked, “Are you doing this to make your wife jealous?” and he said, “Yep.” Cowboys aren’t phonies. Pam was hot and they enjoyed themselves, but he wasn’t in love with her. She knew that. I think she wished someone loved her like I loved Sissy.
Among the 3,600 attendees at the premiere party at Gilley’s were a whiplash-inducing mix of Gilleyrats, Hollywood bigwigs, and entries in Lynn Wyatt’s jet-setting Rolodex. Texas chic was the flavor of the night, sensible or not, with partiers in mink jackets in 95-degree heat. Wyatt wore purple suede, and her friend Diane von Furstenberg, who came on the arm of Paramount exec Barry Diller, wore tiger-striped spandex pants, ocelot boots, and a sheriff’s badge reading “Disco Sucks.”
John Dorsey: Suddenly the middle of nowhere is the center of the universe, and you’ve got Gilleyrats shoulder-to-shoulder with the denizens of Studio 54—von Furstenberg, Warhol, Jerry Hall—who were anointing this place as the next chapter in American culture.
Brooke Alderson played Bud’s aunt Corene: I’ll never forget what Debra wore. She had these tight bright-red pants on. They were so inspired, which shocked me because I’d only known her as Sissy.
Johnny Lee: Gilley gave me some shit because I rented a limo. I couldn’t afford to, but by God I did it. He went in his truck and I thought, “You redneck.”
Dew Westbrook: I’d pissed Paramount Pictures off so bad that they wouldn’t let me go to the premiere, and they even attempted to keep me out of Gilley’s that night. When I walked up, the police doing security said I couldn’t come in. I said, “You wouldn’t be here tonight if it wasn’t for me.” Sherwood walked out of his office and said, “You’re gonna let him in.”
Johnny Lee: They just kept playing my song. “Lookin’ for Love” was in the first part of the movie. And then it’s on the radio, and John Travolta says, “Hey, turn that up, that’s my favorite song.” Then they played it through the credits and all night at Gilley’s. It freaked me out.
Jack Larson: A few days later we rented a car to head back to L.A. In the meantime, Urban Cowboy had opened in Los Angeles and New York. Jim stopped at every pay phone to call and see if reviews had come out. So they came out in New York and everything was great. Then several hours later, the reviews came out in L.A. And they were great too.
The reviews were actually decidedly mixed. Newsweek said Travolta “doesn’t make a false move” and called Winger’s performance “startlingly inventive,” while the New York Times called the film “the most entertaining, most perceptive commercial American movie of the year to date.” The Washington Post, on the other hand, blistered it as “sheer synthetic fantasy” and called Bridges “incorrigibly prosaic.” The most insightful review was itself mixed. After praising the film’s fidelity to detail, Canada’s Globe and Mail blasted its happy ending as cynically commercial. “You’re not going to have a hit, start a fashion trend, and cover the country with sound track albums if the movie is a downer.”
The Canucks were dead-on, and Texas chic swept the country. In the year following the film’s release, the Western-wear industry experienced a 30 percent sales increase. Profits doubled at Tony Lama Boots, prompting the company to build two new manufacturing plants. With the sound track leading the way—it would top the country albums chart and peak at number three on the pop chart—country artists overall enjoyed unprecedented mainstream success; in 1982 Kenny Rogers, who had a single on the sound track, would sign the largest recording contract in history for a reported $20 million. But fads don’t last for a reason, and from its beginning the movement carried an air of self-parody.
Robert Sakowitz ran his family’s upscale Houston-based department-store chain Sakowitz: The “Ultimate Gift” package in our 1979 Christmas catalog was themed “The Gift of Health,” and among the items was this: “Soon to be made famous worldwide in the Paramount motion picture, Mickey Gilley’s club features the ultimate exercising machine for the urban cowboy: the El Toro bucking machine . . . $3,850 plus freight.” But the most outrageous gift that year was a Texas-shaped swimming pool filled with Perrier.
Becky Mancuso-Winding: Six months after it came out, I’m in Chicago working on another film, and everybody had on cowboy shirts and boots. A hotel I stayed in in Atlanta had a Western-themed restaurant with an Urban Cowboy night and two-step lessons. Country bars opened in Vegas, everywhere. I didn’t feel authorship of that, but it made me smile. We’d had an impact.
Daniel James Cole is an adjunct assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York, and co-author of The History of Modern Fashion: The idea of tight, sexy jeans on a young man was already established, but John Travolta put this stamp of approval on it. There were magazine articles about what brand of jeans Travolta wore in Urban Cowboy.
Becky Mancuso-Winding: It was like ripped T-shirts and sweatshirts after Flashdance.
Robert Sakowitz: Not to put an unpleasant tilt on it, but when the oil embargo went into effect in the mid-seventies and the price of oil skyrocketed, Texas had been a beneficiary. People here became larger spenders, and starting in 1978, European and American designers were opening boutiques in the Galleria. By 1980 we had a number of lines that tied in with Texana. Hickey Freeman made some Western-cut things for us, so did Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass. Even Yves St. Laurent did some Texas-flavored design.
Gator Conley: The Charlie 1 Horse hat flair didn’t show up until after Urban Cowboy. At $350 apiece, they were pretty expensive, but it might have a zebra-skin band or a rattlesnake head in the front of it with its fangs showing. All in good taste, mind you.
Robert K. Oermann is the dean of country music writers: The backlash against disco had been so severe, and when people turned to find something else, country was just standing there. There was nothing in disco for rockers or grown-ups, so one camp went punk and one went country. If you liked hard-core country, though, Urban Cowboy was a little embarrassing. People weren’t getting the real thing. This wasn’t George Jones or Loretta Lynn. It was a California-fication of country music.
By mid-1982 the moment was done. But in Pasadena, Gilley’s held on. Just as the movie came out, Cryer had pulled his shrewdest move yet. He bought the patent on the mechanical bull, built them in a shop behind the club, and sold them to faux honky-tonks springing up around the world. He continued to grow the club, adding a rodeo arena with live bull riding on weekends. A “Live at Gilley’s” radio show was syndicated on 450 stations in the U.S. and internationally over the Armed Forces Radio Network. Gilley’s became one of the most visited tourist attractions in the state.
But that couldn’t last either. In the mid-eighties declining tourism and the oil bust cut deep into business. Then Cryer and Gilley had their inevitable falling out. Gilley sued him for his half of the business and won a $16 million judgment in 1988. A year later, the club was shuttered, and a year after that, it was gutted by a suspicious fire. Today nothing of the original club remains.
Raymond Land: Sherwood bought the whole mechanical bull business and moved it down from New Mexico. At one time we had 32 people building bulls and a six-week waiting period before we could deliver. He priced them starting at $8,500, and I’d say we sold close to one thousand, maybe more.
Dew Westbrook: After the movie, I took work building powerhouses—coal burners, nuclear plants, gas plants—all over the United States. I’d see those “Gilley’s” bumper stickers everywhere.
Johnny Lee: My career got going so good my little black book wasn’t arranged alphabetically. It was by state.
Raymond Land: I took all the weekend money to the bank on Mondays in the blue AMC Hornet I drove for a company car. One Monday the lady got through counting it and said, “Raymond, there’s $277,000 in here.” I said, “Oh, Lordy! And I didn’t have anybody with me? That’s scary.” But I guess everybody’d heard so much about Sherwood that they were afraid to fool with me.
Leon Beck is a country music writer who edited Gilley’s Country Magazine and did promotional work for the club: We had a Western-wear and souvenir shop that was open almost round the clock selling anything you could write “Gilley’s” on, from T-shirts to ladies’ panties to jeans to belt buckles to ashtrays. You could come in during the day and get dance lessons, ride the bull, and shop.
Robert Sakowitz: When people came to town, we’d take them to do the normal museum-symphony-ballet thing, but for other nightlife, we needed something exciting, and that was Gilley’s. I remember taking a group from the stately homes of England—the Duke of Marlborough, the Duke of Argyll, the Marquess of Tavistock. They had a ball.
Don “Cowboy” Hoofard: You can’t walk into a club wearing $5,000 boots and a $4,000 cowboy hat and expect to fit in with a bunch of refinery workers. We had to deal with bosses all day long, with supervisors and people that owned the businesses. Now those people are coming out to Gilley’s?
Betty Jones: It wasn’t the same. Sherwood kept pushing for that almighty buck, and the regulars started dwindling away. Some went to other clubs, but I didn’t. Gilley’s was the only place I’d ever gone.
Johnny Lee: After I married Charlene Tilton [who starred as Lucy Ewing on Dallas], we wanted to buy a ranch, so I went to Sherwood to get some money. You’ve got to keep in mind, I’d been on the road for a couple of years, solid. My road manager would give the money to Sherwood, and he promised to make us millionaires. But he said, “You ain’t got no fucking money.” I wanted to kill him. Then him and Gilley got into it.
Mickey Gilley: I tried to get him to clean the club up, and instead he built that rodeo arena. I told him that’d be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Sure enough it did.
Gator Conley: They had a bad divorce. Mickey was out playing nice, swanky clubs, and people would tell him, “I went to your place and it was a dump!” It wasn’t a dump, it was a honky-tonk. But for Mickey, it became a source of embarrassment. I’m sorry he felt that way. I sure miss my club.
Don “Cowboy” Hoofard: Rumors had it that Sherwood burned the club down purposely. Nothing can be further from the truth. Sherwood loved that club. That was his dream, and he was going to do anything he could to get it back open and running again.
Cryer died in 2009, not long after closing his last beer joint, G’s Ice House, which sat in the shadow of the Shell refinery. In those last years he let Leon Beck organize periodic Gilleyrat get-togethers there, but they didn’t call them Gilley’s reunions because Mickey had won exclusive rights to the club’s name. For his part, Mickey has put the name to good use and now has stakes in five Gilley’s around the United States, including one in Dallas. Each one has a mechanical bull. Beck still holds yearly reunions at Pasadena nightclubs, and last year’s highlight came when Betty, now a hospital technician who still lives in Pasadena, shared the stage with Dew, now a truck driver based out of Longview. It was their first public appearance together since their divorce was finalized, in 1979.
Charles Ramirez Berg: It’s kind of a confused movie because it tries to tick so many boxes: it’s part musical, part dance movie, part coming-of-age movie, part working-class-hero-and-milieu movie, only then in the end, it’s a love story. But none of that mattered, because you had Travolta and Winger, a sound track with hit after hit, and a different look at Texas than anyone had seen before.
Gator Conley: It was exciting that people were interested in our lifestyle. I went from being the oddball in a lot of places, because I always wore Western clothes, to being a guy who was in the groove, so to speak. That hadn’t happened much.
John Travolta: Some of those Gilley’s guys were crying at the end of the premiere, and that was my favorite reaction, period. They were so moved that someone told their story the right way, had kept it to their universe and what mattered to them. When Bud got his trailer home, and he’s running around screaming—“It’s got this! It’s got that!”—that’s no different than when Lynn Wyatt got her first mansion. That’s how much it meant to him.
Aaron Latham: I always thought Bud was kind of a Don Quixote. He’d watched all these movies, heard all these country songs, then put on the clothes and thought he was a cowboy. There are only so many mythic figures in the world, and cowboys will always be that for America. This was just a new package: the modern cowboy.
Dew Westbrook: A cowboy is a lot of different things rolled up into one. In a true sense the word “cowboy” means you’re a rancher, you take care of cattle. I used to do that, but I don’t do it now. Now I transport fracking sand. I still have the same morals, though, still carry the same ideas. I’m married now going on three years to wife number four, Becky. Between us we have seven kids and nineteen grandkids. And we have a place we go dancing. It’s called the Levee. Mostly an older crowd, about our age, but as the night goes on the younger crowd comes in. Quite a few of the people there know who I am. But to me, it’s just something that happened.