Social Media Summons the Ghost of Gilley's at Urban Cowboy Reunion
A patron rides El Toro at Gilley's, late '70s
Photos courtesy of John Schubert
In the late '70s, New York City had Studio 54. Pasadena, Texas, had Gilley's. The massive honky-tonk nightclub, which was the real star of the 1980 John Travolta flick Urban Cowboy, was an entertainment mecca in the booming chemical-plant town -- a place where plant workers could catch big-name country music acts, dance with somebody special or just get completely shithoused with friends after work.
It's safe to say that the joint made an impression. More than 30 years after Urban Cowboy's premiere and more than 20 since Gilley's was destroyed by a suspicious fire, hundreds of the club's old regulars -- now scattered to the wind -- are getting together this weekend at Pasadena's Texas Saloon for an Urban Cowboy reunion to catch up, reminisce and sip a few longnecks.
It's the third time in as many years that the now-annual reunion will take place, bringing together ex-Gilley's staff, performers, plant workers and Urban Cowboy extras from near and far. Deer Park resident John Schubert unwittingly kick-started the whole thing back in 2011 when he joined Facebook and began uploading a few old photos he took back when Gilley's was one of the biggest, hottest nightclubs on the planet.
Merle Haggard performs at Gilley's, late '70s
"I started posting pictures that I used to take at Gilley's back in the late '70s, and put some names with them," Schubert says. "Word spread, and the next thing I knew, a lot of the old Gilley's regulars found it and started notifying each other that there was a Remembering Gilley's page in Pasadena, Texas, on Facebook. Leon Beck, the editor of Texas Hot Country magazine, got ahold of the Facebook site and started advertising and letting people know it was out there.
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"By the time of our first reunion in November 2011, I think we had in the neighborhood of 400-500 people on there; it had grown that quick," he added.
Slowly but surely, the Facebook group began to swell with old-timers swapping stories and photos -- especially after former club owner and featured performer Mickey Gilley gave the page a shout-out online. Today, the group numbers nearly 1,800: well more than, say, Stereo Live or House of Blues enjoy today.
"I think the computer, the Internet and the social media helps a lot," Schubert says. "I don't think this could have happened without Facebook. Without the social media that we have, I think organizing a lot of this stuff would be pretty hard, if not impossible, to do."
Schubert says he expects more than 300 people to show up at the reunion tomorrow, many from out of town. That's a pretty good group, I'd say. So what was it that made Gilley's such a touchstone for these folks?
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Crystal Gayle at Gilley's, late '70s
"It was just a place to go," Schubert explains. "It was a big club, and it had a lot of notoriety in the area. It was a venue that was able to accommodate a lot of big-name entertainment. Not a lot of clubs even in the greater Houston area were capable of having those kinds of names - I mean, for God's sake, they had Willie Nelson in there! They had Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Tammy Wynette -- anybody you could name in country music."
Then, of course, there was that little ol' movie starring Mr. Saturday Night Fever himself. Schubert and many others worked as extras in the film that managed to put Pasadena, Texas (not California!) on the map. How true-to-life was it? Schubert says that while a lot of plant workers at the local premiere giggled at the outrageous lack of job-site safety precautions in the film, a lot of it was pretty dang familiar.
"It was pretty accurate in the sense that the guy leaves his family in East Texas and migrates to Houston," Schubert says. "Because back in those days, Houston was a boomtown. There was no problem with unemployment, and the money was good. That part of it was pretty much real.
"Everybody was jumping into the plant work at the time -- they were hiring by the droves," Schubert rememberes. "After we'd get off and have a few dollars in our pockets, we'd go over to Gilley's and have a few beers, listen to some music, do a little dancing... it was just the place to go. A lot of people went and met their wives there, and I was one of them!"
Gary Stewart at Gilley's, late '70s
Now that most of those who remember Gilley's heyday are nearing retirement age, Schubert says the reunion is bound to include as much catching up on one another's kids, health and lost friends and family members as it will reminiscences about the magical dancin' days of their youth.
"It's really just an excuse to get together," Schubert says. "It's not so much focused on the movie, really. Everybody just kind of reminisces about the old days being at the club, you know? 'Hey, have you seen so-and-so?' and 'Oh, guess who died!' It's a lot of seeing old friends and making a few new ones, I guess."
Those bygone days of longnecks and mechanical bulls might not all be ancient history, however. A hot topic of conversation this year is sure to be the recent online announcement by Mickey Gilley himself that the club might soon be resurrected.
"We might be seeing another Gilley's in the next year or two," Schubert says. "I think it would be really neat. There's a demand for it. A lot of people still like to do the boot-scootin' and the country music and everything. It's still there; it hasn't left."
The Urban Cowboy reunion is scheduled for Saturday night at the Texas Saloon, 7337 Spencer Hwy. in Pasadena.
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