Super Happy Fun Land Celebrates A Decade Of Warping Houston
Olivia Dvorak and Brian Arthur, co-owners of Super Happy Fun Land
Pictures by Altamese Osborne
Out of all the entertainment venues in Houston, Super Happy Fun Land has got to be the weirdest.
That's meant in a good way; packed into every corner of the venue are curious odds and ends, most of them leftovers from childhoods lived in the '80s and early '90s. Check out the giant Cabbage Patch dolls, sold to the venue for ten dollars each by a purveyor who calls himself The Crazy Statue Guy.
There are promotional stickers left behind by traveling bands galore. A burgundy kissing couch. Colorful acrylic paintings hang next to a never ending collection of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls.
A lunchbox, a coffeemaker, sit near yellow, blue, orange, and pink wigs.
Holiday lights hang near busts of literary greats and Egyptian queens with an Obama Chia pet growing nearby.
Outside, giant bas-relief sculptures of a man and a woman's face beckon you in from the quiet part of East End.
Should you choose to enter, a black and red checkerboard lobby floor gives way to cement ground and eventually, the low-slung chairs where about 100 people can watch a show on a raised stage. If you don't fancy a show, there are couches off to the side where you can chill and drink a Lone Star.
Smacked onto the walls are several handwritten posters and flyers, each with their own unique, block-letter message: "WE HAVE PIZZA!", "SPICY VEGAN CHILI PROVIDED AS A COURTESY TO THE TOURING BANDS BUT DONATIONS ARE APPRECIATED," Sexy Love Robot Suggests you donate at least $5.00 for these SHIRTS."
"It's kind of a cross between a traditional venue and a DIY, anarchist venue," says owner Brian Arthur.
While most DIY-themed music venues, started by kids who are "bored," normally fail approximately five years into their respective existences, Super Happy Fun Land will be celebrating 10 years this Saturday with a concert and party.
Is this place for real? SHFL has been outfitted ironically, but hipster commenters might say no. An avant-garde homage to innocence lost, perhaps? This is untrue.
The décor has no philosophical message. According to Arthur, who co-owns the place with Olivia Dvorak, they're just a couple of artists/musicians who like stuffed animals.
"We just collect a lot of crazy stuff."
This shared mind prompted the pair to open SHFL in March of 2003 at the Ashland Street Theater.
"We were basically looking for a place where we could both work on our artwork and music," said Arthur.
And about that funny name?
"It's based on an SNL sketch called "Happy Fun Ball with Phil Hartman," Arthur said.
The idea to bring live music into the mix was a casual one and mainly a way of raising money to keep the lights on. However, thanks to its open door policy that allows any band of any genre to perform, they were inundated with requests for bands to put on shows. In their first month, four bands performed. By the third month, that number had grown exponentially.
As the number of bands passing through grew, so did the need for more space to accommodate larger crowds. Their original space was suffering from a strange, fungus-like growth that appeared whenever it rained. And there was just one toilet for the public to share.
But Arthur and Dvorak never got around to finding a bigger venue.
As it would happen, the Ashland Street Theater was sold to a new landlord. who wanted to turn the space into a condo. He insisted SHFL vacate and immediately.
"Do we have until March [to move out]?" Brian remembers asking. It was September then.
"Oh, no, with these things, they move really fast," replied the new landlord.
By October, SHFL had packed up all of its stuffed accoutrements and moved into the location at 3801 Polk St.
Finding a new home would not be the end of the venue's challenges however. Within two months of moving in, they were shut down by the city for not having an occupancy permit.
Arthur and Dvorak scrambled to find an architect and the proper documents to secure one, but it mattered not. Super Happy Fun Land would remain closed for a year.
In the meantime, Arthur and Dvorak made sure the bills on the property were paid, even though there was no incoming money, save from the money put in personally from full-time jobs. To raise more cash, the pair held fundraisers. Walking away was not an option.
Since its reopening, SHFL has become a premiere spot for up-and-coming artists, artists of different genres and artists from different areas.
"We had a guy from France," Arthur said. "Jean Costes. His show was singing operatic comedy with a carrot up his butt and a frying pan tied to his dong."
"A French woman; she was also completely naked, covered with chocolate pudding and vomiting cans of soup into a toilet that was set up on the stage."
Though he admits that Super Happy Fun Land has had a lot dirty stuff, there have been some genuinely cute acts, too. In September 2011, they hosted The Acro-Cats featuring The Rock Cats, an all-cat rock band. The cats were scheduled to play four shows that night. All four shows sold out. They've been back twice.
As for that new landlord, the housing crisis of 2008 proved unfortunate for him and his condo. The original building still stands.
The lineup of acts scheduled to play the band's anniversary gig come with an added nostalgic value.
There will be Muzak John, the very first person ever to perform on the SHFL stage. There will be Do Jones, one of many teen bands that played at the old location.
Arthur and Dvorak will also reunite their two-person music group, Organ Failure, after a two-year hiatus.
Of course Rusted Shut will be there, a group "famous," says Arthur, "for getting kicked out of every club in Houston." Ironically, they're the only Houston band asked to perform at Austin's SXSW Festival ever year because, Arthur said again," they get kicked out of every club in Houston."
Other acts include The Annoysters, Nonsense Music Band and the final performance from noise act Concrete Violin.
The show will be held the day after Arthur's birthday, to commemorate the venue's opening at that very same time. But don't expect the owner to get misty-eyed.
"If we don't have a capacity crowd," Arthur threatens, "we're not signing up for another ten years." He has a habit of deadpanning, so it's hard to tell if he is joking.
"If we do get a capacity, crowd, we'll sign up for another ten years."
"We'll let Houston decide."
Visit superhappyfunland.com for a complete list of performing bands.
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