The New Gilley's: Score One for La Porte

This Gilley's sign now resides in a Nashville antique store.
This Gilley's sign now resides in a Nashville antique store.

After years of talking about it, Mickey Gilley appears close to opening another nightclub bearing his name in the southeastern quadrant of Harris County. Except instead of Pasadena, the locale the Gilley’s of Urban Cowboy fame is said to have “put on the map,” the new club will be located in nearby La Porte.

According to the Pasadena Citizen, last month Gilley met with members of the La Porte Planning and Zoning Commission to outline his plans to open a “Branson-style” entertainment venue as part of a proposed 20-acre mixed-use development off State Highway 146, which would be known as La Porte Town Center. The price tag for the project, which the commission delayed a vote on until this month’s meeting, is in the neighborhood of $50 million. Between all the amusements listed in the article, it sounds like this new club would have everything but a mechanical bull.

The 50,000 square-foot entertainment center would focus on Branson-style stage performances and would feature a dance floor that could be converted to a roller skating rink during the day. Gilley’s would also feature laser tag, an arcade, boutique bowling, pool tables, bumper cars, a western clothing store, gift shops and a coffee bar.

However, the lead developer also told the commission — while likening the new venue to wholesome family-entertainment franchises Main Event and Dave & Busters — that he wants the new club’s aesthetic to resemble the old Gilley’s as much as possible.

“We’re planning to create a nostalgic look similar to the original Gilley’s,” said David Miles of Friendswood-based Turfway FEC.

Hmmm. The old Gilley’s had a sign at the entrance that said ‘check guns, knives, chains, knucks, all weapons at the front door.” Carlos Cabillo, a Pasadena native and filmmaker affiliated with Houston’s Southwest Alternate Media Project, told this story on The Rag Blog after Sherwood Cryer, the former refinery welder who was a Gilley's partner and ran the day-to-day operations, passed away in August 2009.

I asked Sherwood to tell me about the BIGGEST fight or free-for-all he had ever witnessed in his place and he told me about the time that a teacher's (!) convention had come to Houston and on a Saturday night a busload of teachers, men and women from all parts of the country, had shown up to take in the Gilley's experience, as the club's fame was beginning to soar. They all went to sit in one of the corners of the cavernous club and they soon began to have too much fun; these teachers got liquored up and began to fight, first with each other, and then they took on the regulars.

Sherwood sent over two, then four, then eventually every bouncer and large patron he could find in an attempt to restore order, but these drunken teachers ended up beating the crap out of every bouncer and wannabee (sic) bouncer in that melee and finally Sherwood had to call in the Pasadena Police and the EMTs and shut down and evacuate the club for the night. When the Pasadena Police arrived in force with their riot helmets on and brandishing serious-looking batons and when the schoolteachers found themselves being surrounded by these officers, they reacted by attacking the cops (!) and eventually many of these rowdy educators were hauled off to jail.

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Interestingly, that Citizen article also mentions that Gilley had been turned down by the city of Pasadena because of opposition by a number of local churches. On Facebook, the singer had been talking about opening a club in Pasadena since at least mid-2013, but nothing ever panned out. Gilley’s name also came up when Pasadena officials were debating what to do with a parcel of land the city council had voted to acquire about a year ago, but a taxpayer named Larry Peacock didn’t like that idea at all.

“About our spending in the city, I don’t think we’re doing a great job of spending money well,” he said in another Citizen article. “I think we’re wasting money. Using taxpayer dollars to build a night club, a honky-tonk on the edge of Pasadena is out of order. I know it’s not illegal but I don’t like my taxes going that way.”

Some folks may be wondering exactly when Pasadena got so pious. But when Gilley’s was foundering in the late ‘80s in the wake of a bitter lawsuit between Gilley and Cryer — the club never really recovered, and burned to the ground in 1990 — the then-mayor of Pasadena defended his city against the widespread perception it was a honky-tonk “shrine” by telling the Chicago Tribune Pasadena was “basically Protestant and pretty well church-oriented.” (Note the national attention the club was still attracting, even eight years after Urban Cowboy came out.)

In an odd way, the current struggle over where to put a new Gilley’s and the questions over the sort of nightclub it’s going to be — an old-school honky-tonk or family-friendly joint — mirrors the disagreement that led to the lawsuit that hastened Gilley’s ultimate demise. Although that was mostly about money, Gilley was also trying to force Cryer to clean up the club's image a little bit; his partner basically wasn’t having it, as noted in a May 1987 Dallas Morning News article:

Cryer has been quoted recently as saying that Gilley`s is the same rough-hewn dance hall it has always been. He denies mismanaging the business and says Gilley has simply lost touch with his roots.

Gilley denies going uptown.

“I totally agree it needs to stay a Texas honky-tonk, but it can be a clean one,” he said directly after that.

Perhaps a cleaner kind of honky-tonk has a better chance of succeeding in 2015. Honestly, we were also hoping to dig up a huge rivalry between Pasadena and La Porte here, but there doesn’t seem to be much of one; certainly nothing on the order of “Dallas for culture, Fort Worth for fun” anyway. Even La Porte High School’s main rival is Deer Park rather than any of the Pasadena schools.

Oh well. If the new Gilley’s in La Porte is a huge success, maybe there will be. As was pointed out to the planning commission, the Fox network is planning a new series based on Urban Cowboy for next year, so some officials are hoping public interest in all things Gilley's will be spiking at just the right time. (Naturally, the series is being filmed in Austin.) Just please, God — laser tag and bumper cars are all well and good, but let this new place have a couple of mechanical bulls too.

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