Austin Stories B.C. – The Clown Next Door

An Austin story B.C. (Before Children), sometime between 1975-1985.
A series of stories for each letter of the alphabet. The 70s were a long time ago. 26 stories might be a stretch for my brain. I have made it to C.

Another story set in our first apartment in Austin – River Hills Apartments.

On the other side of a common wall lived a man, a woman, and a small boy. An assortment of other men, women, and children came and went, but these three were the permanent residents. Their car was an old yellow taxi cab they had personalized. Where the company logos used to be now there were black skull and crossbones: symbols of death, poison, and pirates. The woman worked as a flower seller.

There were lots of street corner flower sellers in Austin in the 70s, There were two competing companies, each with about one hundred employees who worked Thursday – Sunday. The vendors were dropped off at their designated location with a bucket of flowers. Some of them wore costumes to distinguish themselves and build a clientele. If you were driving down the street, you might see a flower seller ahead and have time to stop to make a purchase. And whether walking or driving, you knew what flower seller to expect on a particular corner. The vendors took home a third of what they collected in sales for the day. So $3.00 carnations yielded $1.00 to take home. I was the happy recipient of an occasional flower purchase.

My favorite flower seller was a guy who dressed in top hat and tails and could spin a carnation on his palm. He was a class act. My neighbor dressed as a clown and drove off in her pirate taxi cab when she went to work. I guess I didn’t often drive by my neighbor’s corner. I only remember seeing her once or twice somewhere in South Austin.

It didn’t appear that the man of the house had a job and the melee that ensued when the woman returned home early one day led us to believe that if there was any business going on, it was of the “funny business” variety involving one of the rotating house guests. There was a lot of yelling and stomping up and down the stairs on the other side of our common wall and some outside as well. It wasn’t long after that they moved out. My heart hurt for the little boy, who was just a toddler.

In addition to the Armadillo World Headquarters and bats, street corner flower vendors contributed to the vibe of 1970s Austin and our city slogan: Keep Austin Weird. I don’t know what happened to the people who lived next door to us, but there were some notable flower vendors. And here is where I digress from a personal story to the news bits I had fun reading and bringing “old Austin” to mind …

The most well-known flower seller is Crazy Carl Hickerson. I searched the local newspaper for articles about him and there are many! He became a “perennial” candidate for political offices – mostly Austin City Council; but also governor, mayor, and sheriff. He never won an election and never seemed to want to.

The first mention I found of him was in 1977 (since I was looking beginning with 1975, when we moved to Austin). I think he may first have run in 1971.

Austin American Statesman 1977 Jan 19

He insisted that his name be listed on the ballot as “Crazy” Carl Hickerson. Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was also running for a place on city council that year. One of Hickerson’s quotable sound bites that year was, “I don’t have mental illness, but I am a carrier.” After losing in 1977, he was first to file for the 1979 election, then set a flower-twirling record.

Austin American Statesman, Austin, TX 1977 June 19

I could devote a lot of space to Crazy Carl Hickerson, but I’ll try not to. He continued to run for office into the 90s; sold flowers, drove a taxi, sold sandwiches, modeled for art students, and worked at Oat Willie’s – among other things.

Austin American Statesman 1978 April 16

He was arrested for disrupting the boat races on Town Lake by disabling the starting lights during a protest.

Austin American Statesman 1978 Sep 07

His political platforms usually contained some weird ideas, but many came to be mainstream. (STNP – South Texas Nuclear Project)

Austin American Statesman 1979 Apr 01

He sometimes sold flowers nearly naked and other times in more modest attire. That’s Carl on the left.

Austin American Statesman 1980 Nov 13

And sometimes entertained with his trombone.

Later in life, Crazy Carl twirled flowers outside the street side window of Esther’s Follies.

Austin American Statesman 2016 May 30

Max Nofziger sold flowers and played guitar at the corner of Oltorf and Congress. He followed Crazy Carl into politics, although he really did want to be elected.

Austin American Statesman Apr 01

He ran a couple of unsuccessful campaigns, but got enough votes in the 1983 mayoral election to cause a run off, which gave him the power of his endorsement. He “cleaned up” his look for this race, which he figured added to his vote tally.

Austin American Statesman 1983 Mar 20

Max Nofziger served three terms on city council. He ran primarily on environmental issues.  When he retired from that position, Crazy Carl ran for his place.

Austin American Statesman 1996 Jan 04

Sometimes people confused Max Nofziger with Crazy Carl. Nofziger pokes fun at it in this musical performance during a city council meeting as he left office.

Max Nofziger has maintained political influence, especially concerning environmental and transportation issues as a consultant and he has continued to pursue a musical career.

Austin American Statesman 2012 Jun 26

Carl Hickerson is featured in a couple of documentaries. I have only watched the first few minutes of the most recent one, but in those few minutes heard Eddie Wilson (Armadillo World Headquarters), Max Nofziger, and Shannon Sedwick (Esther’s Follies). And there is some skin in those first few minutes too. Edit: I posted the video before watching the whole thing – hopefully you won’t find it offensive – just weird.

This is my response to the Sepia Saturday prompt this week, focussing on the letter C rather than horses or racing. However, I do have a photo of horses at a busy intersection in Austin that I took from the car on Feb. 21. Austin still has its weird moments.

Please race on over to Sepia Saturday to view the other responses to this week’s prompt photo.


Austin Stories B. C. – Bats

An Austin story B.C. (Before Children), sometime between 1975-1985.
A series of stories for each letter of the alphabet. The 70s were a long time ago. 26 stories might be a stretch for this old brain. We’ll see.

Our first home in Austin was at the River Hills Apartments on Royal Crest Drive. It was a cute little studio apartment: living room and kitchen downstairs; bedroom, bathroom, and walk-in closet upstairs. A sliding-glass door opened onto a tiny fenced patio. It was fully furnished in fabulous 70s décor – shag carpet included. Our apartment wasn’t the popular avocado green or harvest gold; it was the popular-but-not-quite-as-popular orange color. Did that orange have a descriptor? I don’t recall, but you can see it in this photo.

Me. Christmas 1977.

I don’t remember any furniture on our tiny patio, but we did try to grow a few plants. One summer we noticed “droppings” out there. Did we have rats? Were tiny bunnies squeezing through the fence? Then … no more droppings. The following summer, droppings again.

One day around dusk, we were out on our little patio and we saw them – dozens of bats flying out of surrounding apartments – and ours! The siding on the upper level of our apartment was warped, offering entry and a home to the little migratory mammals.

We promptly called the management, expecting a remedy. Nope. Bats come out at dusk when the maintenance people have gone home for the day. No one was available to nail the door shut when the bat family went out for dinner.

Martin began to research the problem the old-fashioned way: a land line phone during business hours and the library. Protected species; no poison; repel with moth balls….yadayadayada. No help to be found.

One day around sunset, Martin went upstairs. He yelled. I ran up to see what was going on. A bat was flying around the bedroom. We ran back downstairs.

Okay. So it was only one bat. But it was one bat too many.

We called the apartment office. They were on it! A kid with a tennis racket showed up at our door. We directed him up the stairs and he was off to the match. A powerful forearm stroke in the backcourt closet for the win.

Now we were spooked living in our lovely apartment. It was hard to fall asleep at night.

Since the management wasn’t going to do anything, we decided we had had enough and should find another place to live. But before we could find somewhere to go, another bat made it inside. This time it was night and we didn’t fool around. We called 911. A firefighter came to our rescue. A firefighter is exactly the person you want when you have a bat in the living room – thick protective jacket, helmet, thick leather gloves. Totally batproof! After the firefighter carried the bat out and left (with our sincere and profuse thanks), we left too – finding comfort at a hotel downtown. But not before hearing another bat (bats?) banging around in the air conditioning vent. We closed all the vent covers, packed a bag, and were out of there.

Next morning, we were fortunate to find an apartment manager who took pity on us and rented us an apartment that had just freed up. (Apparently water beds were not allowed in third floor apartments.) We couldn’t pack fast enough. On one of my trips downstairs to load up the car, I noticed a dark stain on those orange living room drapes. A stain? No!! A bat! Asleep – on the drapes!

We drove back by our old apartment several months later and again, months after that. It was vacant. We don’t know how long it remained vacant. Of people, I mean.

In 1980, the Congress Avenue Bridge was renovated and the new design unwittingly led to the proliferation of bats in Austin. It provided the perfect roosting place for the Mexican free-tailed bats that migrate to central Texas each spring. People weren’t happy about the growing number of bats in our city.

Then Merlin Tuttle moved to Austin in 1986 and relocated his fledgling conservation organization, Bat Conservation International. He worked to change the status of bats from scary rabid vampires to welcome guests.

Now bats are part of the culture and landscape of Austin. The 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that roost under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge comprise the largest urban bat colony in the world. It is a popular tourist attraction.

You can watch as the bats take flight while standing on the bridge or from a spot on land below  …

or from the water.

Austin even has a statue to celebrate our seasonal guests.


I was asking my husband to help jog my memory for a few details as I was writing this. He said he prefers not to remember traumatic events. When we hear that little clicking sound bats make when we are out at night, we still get a little spooked. Can you blame us if we haven’t been to the bridge to watch thousands of bats emerge?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday this week, where the prompt photo depicts a grand and sedate living room. At dusk perhaps??

Living Room With Grand Piano, Edvard Grieg Collection, Bergen Public Library on Flickr Commons

Please visit my fellow Sepians at Sepia Saturday.

Austin Stories B. C. – The Armadillo

An Austin story B.C. (Before Children), sometime between 1975-1985.

The nine banded armadillo was adopted as the Texas small state mammal on June 16, 1995. The state held a mock election with hundreds of elementary school children to decide on the state mammal. Support for the longhorn and armadillo was equally divided so the state decided to create a designation for small state mammal and large state mammal. The armadillo is most frequently seen as road kill along Texas highways and known as a garden pest that roots around plants for insects and uproots them in the process. But I guess they can be kind of cute.

In Austin, the armadillo took on iconic status during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Having moved to Texas in 1969 and to Austin in 1975, I am no authority on the subject and encourage you to do your own research if you are so inclined. I will venture a guess that the band Shiva’s Headband and album cover artist Jim Franklin had something to do with the elevation of the lowly armadillo. Jim Franklin described why he was “drawn” to the armadillo:

“I had found a handbook on the mammals of North America. And there was a painting of an armadillo. Franklin recalls. “It keyed a memory of a hunting trip with my father, where we were creeping up on a sound in the bush. And it was an armadillo. My father laughed. I slipped under the wire and when it stood up. I froze. It goes back to digging. I get right up to it. The damn thing turned around and walked between my legs.”

“I get a request to do a handbill for a love in concert at Woolridge Park. The armadillo was occupying my imagination for a couple of days. I did an ink drawing. It’s just come across a pack of papers and about three or four joints rolled and laying there on the ground, and the armadillo’s got one in its mouth puffing. And overnight it turned the armadillo on to all the hipsters. What struck me was that at the time beatniks were getting beaten up by bubbas from the university, frats in Austin. It was dangerous if you had long hair to walk around the streets of Austin at night.”

“So the idea of using the armadillo as to illustrate the beatnik audience, I thought, well, perfect, because we’re always getting run over by rednecks and pickups.”

I met my husband in college in 1972. He was a doodler of armadillos, frequently including the words, “Take me to the mountains.” I didn’t know why. I later learned that Shiva’s Headband had a song and album by that name, released in 1969.

The back cover provides a cartoon explantation of the title: “If I can ever … get out of this cement … I’m going to the mountains! And if I do get to the mountains … I don’t think I’ll ever come back … to the city!”

Inside the album jacket is a booklet, about 6×9. More armadillos!
Click to enlarge.

Shiva’s Headband was an Austin band formed in 1967. They were the house band at Vulcan Gas Company on Congress Ave. and the first local band to release an album nationally and sign with a major label. While he was in high school, my husband saw them at Of Our Own in Houston, a night that also included a long set by ZZ Top (pre-beards, I’m guessing). My husband spent his junior year of college at UT and saw them a few times at the Vulcan. The album covers and posters were obviously the inspiration for his many doodles of armadillos engaged in any number of poses and activities. My future husband sent me many letters during that year away, and almost all of them bore an armadillo after the signature.

The Vulcan closed in the summer of 1970 and the band and their manager, Eddie Wilson, were instrumental in opening the Armadillo World Headquarters so that the band would have another home base. The artist, Jim Franklin, rendered many an armadillo over the years.

When we moved to Austin in 1975, the Armadillo was a major influencer of music and culture in Austin.

We didn’t actually spend much time at the Armadillo. We don’t think we ever attended a concert, but we both remember sitting in the beer garden where food and beverages were consumed. Shiner Bock was the beer of choice for many an Austinite, although I never learned to like beer.

One of the ways the Armadillo helped cover the rent was through the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, which we did attend several times. It was a place for local artists to make some money selling their wares. These posters are not dated, but the admission increased from 50 cents to 1.50 and a location away from the Armadillo by the 7th year.

Johnmatthewwalker1974, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the Armadillo closed on New Year’s Eve 1980. Even though we did not frequent the Armadillo, we were really sad to see it go. It was so important to the local culture. A big part of Austin’s identity would be gone. It would be replaced by an office building. No art or culture there.

The last show was broadcast on the local PBS radio station. It was a long night, but my husband recorded it on cassette tapes. He was able to convert them to digital files that now reside in our itunes. Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel closed out the show and everyone sang “Goodnight, Irene” to end an era.

Below are some photos my husband took of the Armadillo. The Armadillo is hidden from view by the skating rink in the pic below.

August of 1980, several months after the Armadillo was shuttered.

Murals on the side of the building.

In January 1981, shortly before the building was torn down, the murals were repainted with some revisions

and an admonition to “Remember the Armadillo.”

We have purchased a number of Armadillo World Headquarters t-shirts over the years. Here I am with two of my sisters who were visiting us.

We have a few other items to remind us of the Armadillo. For one thing, my husband’s doodles and love for the iconic armadillo led to a small collection. I even made a crewel embroidery armadillo for him.

And we made purchases at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar over the years. The bazaar is still going on, but the admission is well above $1.50 these days! This little armadillo and wizard are early Christmas Bazaar purchases.

We also have a couple of posters. We think we had at least one more, but who knows where it is hiding. They are works of art, but were just made for each concert and stapled to telephone poles. Sometimes you could just pick one up somewhere.

The poster of the last night was a gift.

During the 2016 presidential election, a friend and I did a “Hillary and Bill Tour of Austin,” visiting sites where they had been sighted in Austin, mostly as young adults working on political campaigns. They are said to have frequented the Armadillo, so as part of the “tour,” I took our poster from the last night and set it by a tree in the parking lot of the office building where the Armadillo used to be.

As I was gathering information for this post today, I found an account at KUTX that puts Bill and Hillary at the Armadillo:

And there’s this story, from a time when the Armadillo was having a problem with overzealous security, told by longtime employee Bruce Willenzik.

“I shouldn’t have been working there that night. But we were trying to keep security under control and a situation happened. It was the Black Oak show, November of 77. And the fire marshal had given us a bunch of hell about people putting chairs in fire aisles. I’ve been back in the security office, had just burned a big one, and was headed back to the kitchen. And I see this big redneck put two chairs down in the fire aisle. He’s got this girl with him with glasses on and curly hair. He’s big. So I go over there to go talk to him. The first band had just started in. They’ve never played there before. Way too loud. The guy could not hear me at all. I’m trying to tell him he’s got to move. ‘You gotta move!’ He can’t hear me. He didn’t know who the hell I was. I’m probably not handling it well and I’m feeling the pressure of the fire marshal who said, we’re gonna ticket you. We’re gonna close you down. So I was fairly aggressive with the guy. He could not hear me at all. Finally, he stood up. I thought he’d heard me. So I grabbed his chair. She stood up. I grabbed hers. He took exception and took a swing at me.”

“By then the first song is over. ‘No, you don’t understand,’ I say. ‘I’m trying to help you.’ ‘What? What Do you mean you’re trying to help me?’ ‘You’re in the wrong place.’ And right as I said that, I saw a big arm, Jerry’s arm, go across the guy’s neck and I look and there’s terrible Tom cocking his fist to go right through the guy’s jaw. And I’m thinking, got to stop the brutality. I don’t know this guy, and he just punched me. But I’m not gonna let him get hurt. ‘STOP!’ I scream and I can be a human megaphone when I need to. They both froze. ‘He’s a friend from high school. Leave him alone.’ ‘Sorry, man.’ They back off. And the guy is totally freaked. So is his girl.”

So I explain to him, now that the band’s down enough, he can hear me. ‘I’m going to move you to a better place where you’re legal.’ ‘Oh, man. I’m sorry. I thought you were trying to steal my chair.’ Don’t worry about it, it’s all OK.’ ‘No, I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry.’ All these apologies I get people to scooch over. We get the chairs in there, we get them set. They’re still apologizing. And I said to the guy, ‘Look, you’re OK. Security is not going to touch you because they know you’re a friend of mine now. And I’m not a lawyer. I’m not going to sue you.’

“And she goes, ‘Oooooh!’ Oh, shit. I said the wrong thing. What did I say? She said, ‘We’re both lawyers.’ You got to be kidding me, I think. What kind of lawyer hits a stranger? She says. “My husband Bill is Attorney General of Arkansas, and my name’s Hillary. I work for the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.’ “

“’Oh, my God. Sorry.’ ’No, you don’t need to apologize. We need to apologize.’ So I go back to the kitchen and tell my little brother what just happened. And I said, ‘Man, we’ve got to get serious about the brutality here, because imagine the headline, ‘Attorney General of Arkansas gets Mauled at the Armadillo’. We’d have been out of business. During the break, I went brought him beer and nachos and I was all apologetic and they were all apologetic, it was really funny. So at the end of the gig, I went and gave them the whole tour, and left them with the band.”

“Twenty-two years later, I’m at the opening of the new airport, here’s Bill Clinton again. He was the chair of the new airport terminal task force. I was on the board. I was with all the VIPs and he comes right up to me. I said, ‘I met you at 77, at the Armadillo, the Black Oak show.’ ‘You know, Hillary and I were talking about that last night. What a great experience that was, our best night ever in Austin. Somebody on the staff was so nice to us. That was you, wasn’t it?’ He comes right through the thing. He’s all hugging me. He’s all friendly. He comes back four times to thank me. Mayor Watson, on the bus on the way back, asks  ‘What’s the deal with you and Clinton?’ ‘Old times,’ I say.”

In 1977 I had not heard of Hillary and Bill. If only I had known and gone to the Armadillo that evening!

I’ll close with this.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday. I may continue with Austin stories as the prompt photos work through the alphabet. Please visit other Sepia Saturday participants here.

Sepia Saturday 565 Theme Image : Ladies Curling Club, Olds, Alberta. Provincial Archives Of Alberta (Flickr Commons)