Since time immemorial -- which in Houston means about ten years -- the Art Car Ball has been an annual contender for Best Party of the Year.
Thousands of folks, many of them dressed to make artistic statements, would pack a downtown parking garage to celebrate the upcoming Art Car Parade, that procession of bizarre, hilarious and outrageous automobile sculptures that attracts 250,000 viewers each year. They'd stroll among the art cars parked on the different levels, they'd ogle the fire-eaters and the women wearing hubcap bikinis, they'd dodge the skaters speeding by. Tickets might be $25 or, eventually, $40, but once you got in, the beer and wine were free, and you could eat as much of the tasty down-home Mexican food as you could politely inhale before supplies ran out.
The April weather always seemed to cooperate, and as the night wore on everyone would gather on the roof, under the stars, beneath the giant skyscrapers housing the city's powers that be, and they'd listen to Joe Ely or Brave Combo or that year's hot zydeco band bash out a set.
There were nights when it all gelled so perfectly that you forgot about August heat waves or Southwest Freeway traffic or flat, featureless geography, and you wondered why the hell everyone in the world didn't move to Houston.
And then there was this year's ball.
Instead of a downtown parking garage, it was held at the Astrodome -- the Reliant Astrodome, as the naming-rights-aware invitation put it. Any happy thoughts of meshing the skewed sensibilities of art cars with the kitschiness of the '60s-relic Dome were pretty much banished as partygoers descended the ramp to the stadium's floor.
The art cars were there, but they were scattered about in an oppressive gloom that permeated the barely lit place. Somewhere a band was playing, but you couldn't tell who, or where, or what kind of music it was supposed to be. Thousands of people milled about as always, but now they were swallowed up by the vastness of the place, and huge gaps between groups made the floor seem empty.
A cluster of people gathered for the traditional judging of the night's fashions, but what is typically a high-energy whoops-and-cheers performance seemed overwhelmed by the Dome's sheer enormity and dreary murkiness.
Many of the artists displaying their cars were upset with a last-minute edict from the city fire marshal that forced them to empty three-quarters of their gas tanks before they entered the building. Others were still smarting from last year's crisis, when for the first time parade organizers limited the number of entrants.
The funereal atmosphere might have been ignored by dedicated partiers, but one other change had taken place: This year, your $40 ticket got you precisely one drink. You were shelling out five bucks a beer after that. And if you wanted food, you could walk up the aisles of the field-level seats to the concourse and pay for a Dome Dog. That delicacy, which hasn't appreciably improved since the Astros moved to Enron Field, was served by concessionaires grumbling among themselves about the outlandish attire of some of their customers.
You were stuck with Dome Dogs or questionable nachos unless, of course, you paid for a VIP ticket. A VIP ticket that cost one hundred and twenty-five dollars.
If you were willing to shell out $125 for the Art Car Ball -- and almost 450 people were -- you got access to a roped-off section of the Dome, where you could look out on all the piss-poor Dome Dog-eating fools as you washed down all the St. Arnold's beer you wanted and noshed on hors d'oeuvres from Dish, Solero and the Century Diner. Then you could find one of the unreserved, linen-covered tables and dine on a main course from the Brothers Petronella catering crew as you tried to see your fellow diners through the elaborate centerpieces.
There, under the many banners honoring Pennzoil, the Official Sponsor of the Art Car Ball and Parade, the liberté, égalité et fraternité of past Art Car Balls had suddenly taken on a let-'em-eat-cake feel.
And among the groundlings much grumbling was heard. The Art Car Ball and Parade, in its 15th year, had seemingly gotten far from its roots. What began as a near-impromptu celebration of idiosyncrasy, what developed into a uniquely Houston affair that garnered worldwide acclaim, had apparently turned into a soulless corporate event, co-opted by Big Bidness and transformed into a patronizingly tolerated bit of Officially Condoned Wackiness for the marketing arm of the city's chamber of commerce.
The question hung heavily in the dimly lit air that night: What the hell has become of the Art Car Weekend?
It's clear the events are not what they once were. What they will become, however -- including the very real possibility that the art car phenomenon will follow in the bitter footsteps of the Westheimer Street Festival and provide dueling, confusing parades -- is very much up in the air.
Crucial to both things -- what was and what will be -- is Susanne Theis, 45, the executive director of the Orange Show Foundation. Theis has been involved from the beginning in Houston's art car movement, and she is currently shepherding the event through some shaky times that feature unprecedented staff turnover, unrest from art car artists, disputes with the powerful Houston International Festival, and ever-present money troubles.
Theis knows the Astrodome party has gotten mixed reviews at most, but says the Dome was the best of a limited number of bad options.
Back in the days of the oil bust, it was easy to find a garage downtown willing to close during the week for the time needed to put on the ball. Finding space became more difficult as downtown got busier, however, so the party was shifted to Saturday nights, after the parade. But that never really worked -- people liked the idea of a preparade party to kick off the weekend, and artists and volunteers were too exhausted to do much by Saturday night. Friday nights were out, because the artists have to have their cars on Allen Parkway by 8 a.m. Saturday.
The city suggested using the George R. Brown Convention Center, "but that sounded like death to us," Theis says. The Orange Show negotiated for two months to use the garage of a building closed for renovations on the West Loop near Westheimer, but that fell through.
"It was owned by an insurance company, and I don't think they were too crazy about having 5,000 people drinking beer on the roof," she says.
So they settled on the Dome. But Aramark is the exclusive concessionaire for the Dome, and it wouldn't allow free beer or food for the masses. And the foundation couldn't afford to have the entire place lit up all night, leaving the event in semi-darkness.
"It was like attending a really bad, really cheap car show," says photographer George Hixson, an Art Car Ball veteran. "None of the colors of the cars jumped out. They should have had it lit up all night like they did when they were trying to get us all to leave at the end."
"The learning curve when you're in a new space is always pretty tremendous," Theis said a few days after Art Car Weekend. "Right now we're all still too tired from the event, so we can't tell in terms of problems what came from the learning curve and what's just not right with the space. It was a glorious night outside that night, so it would've been great to have been outside. And obviously we could have used the space better. But we'll study it and listen to what people have to say and decide what to do next year."
The event is a fund-raiser for the Orange Show, but even with the high-priced tickets and crowd of 4,000 or so, Theis says the costs associated with using the Dome, and inflation, mean this year's event likely won't raise a whole lot more than the $15,000 netted at the first ball in 1991, when 700 showed up.
With all the free tickets given out -- maybe 1,500 or so to artists and companies that donated services -- the Orange Show will be lucky to net $30,000 on the ball even if almost six times as many people showed up as came ten years ago.
The entire Art Car Weekend is supposed to be a fund-raising godsend to the Orange Show, the organization that spreads the gospel of homegrown folk art as epitomized by Jeff McKissack, a former mailman who turned his Munger Street home into an eccentric monument to the orange.
But the Orange Show Foundation has never capitalized efficiently on the fact that a quarter-million people show up at its parade each year, especially in these days when you can't attend a rock concert without walking past a bazaar of high-priced T-shirts and souvenirs.
The weekend eats up about half of the group's annual budget of $500,000 and demands long, long hours of staff and volunteer time. "It has just become this huge thing -- I think it's hard for anyone on the outside to understand what it takes to put it on each year, the time and energy it takes," Theis says.
It wasn't always this way. The first art car events were haphazard affairs triggered by whimsy and rebellion among the 1980s Houston art underground, which centered around things like the Orange Show, the Lawndale Art & Performance Center, the Public News and the Urban Animals.
Houston didn't invent art cars -- obviously people have been tricking up their automobiles since the days of the Model T. But among the first tentative steps toward today's massive parade was a 1984 fund-raising party for the Orange Show. Instead of auctioning off a BMW like high-priced galas did, the foundation had a 1967 station wagon to offer. Local artist Jackie Harris wanted to decorate it and turned it into the Fruitmobile.
Knowing of other elaborately renovated cars in town, like Scott Prescott's half-car, half-tank Ghetto Blaster, a parade was organized in 1986 down Montrose Boulevard.
It was supposed to end at the Museum of Fine Arts sculpture garden, but Prescott just continued rolling, turning onto Main Street and rumbling downtown until he reached the La Carafe bar.
When the Orange Show brought a bunch of art cars to Munger Street that year, 1,400 people showed up in two days to see them. "I didn't know 1,400 people even knew where the Orange Show was," Theis says.
About that time the Houston International Festival, the annual downtown arts-and-music extravaganza, started bleeding money and cut back on its outdoor sculpture exhibit. Looking for a replacement, it contacted the Orange Show and asked about art cars.
"The festival gave us $5,000, and we gave away about $3,000 in prizes," says Theis of that 1988 event. "We had 40 cars and about 2,000 spectators, and I don't think any one of them came intentionally."
Theis says she was surprised that the festival asked them to return the following year. She was more than surprised -- she was shocked -- when 200,000 people showed up to watch.
"I'll never be able to explain it as long as I live," she says. "We didn't do anything differently, really. But we've been racing to keep up ever since."
Hixson credits word of mouth. "Everyone in Houston comes from somewhere else, and we were all just calling our friends after the first one and telling them, 'This is so fucking cool, you've got to come,' " he says.
Theis says two unforeseen trends helped the parade grow: "When people saw these cars, a whole lot of them said, 'I want to make one too.' " There also was the involvement of schools creating art cars as class projects.
Twenty-six such student-built cars paraded this year. "It became a curriculum in schools; we produced a book on how to do it," she says. "It was this totally unanticipated consequence from the parade."
The Orange Show Foundation, formed as a small, almost staffless nonprofit group involved with one "monument" and some small projects -- an organization with an annual program budget of just $2,500 -- suddenly found itself responsible for a massive parade each year. "It utterly transformed this tiny little organization," Theis says.
As the parade grew, so did its budget -- both in terms of staff time (5,000 to 6,000 telephone calls come in to the foundation each April) and in the infrastructure needed to put the event on and pay at least part of the transportation costs for many of the participants.
Some of the changes riled artists. In the freewheeling days, applications to ride in the parade were one page. If you didn't actually have a finished art car to photograph as part of the application, you could just draw what you thought your completed project would look like. And if it didn't really come out that way in the end, no worries.
Now, even Theis admits the form "looks like a 1040." She says the need to provide accurate information for visiting media and for the TV broadcast of the parade means more description is required from applicants. Newly constricted parade routes forced organizers to take into account such details as a vehicle's turning radius.
"It's gotten to be really incredibly complex," she says. Especially for an organization like the Orange Show, whose idea of a big event before the art cars came along was to bring in Ralph the Swimming Pig for a show or two. And the "bureaucracy" of the foundation, run out of a ramshackle house across the street from McKissack's fruit-saluting monument, is still more reminiscent of an enthusiastic bunch of college students than of a killer, money-hungry cash-raising machine. The "handmade" philosophy celebrated by the folk-art heroes the foundation champions carries over to their own efforts: Trophies are personally decorated, information packets are gathered and stuffed by hand, relationships with individual art car artists are nurtured by phone and mail.
Even with 300 volunteers, the job of putting on the parade is daunting.
As the load became too much, the foundation and the festival sought corporate sponsorships. In 1998, memorably, the event was formally known as The Bank United Art Car Parade Powered by Pennzoil. Now Pennzoil is the sole name sponsor, thanks to a donation of nearly six figures.
A lot of people aren't happy with the corporate tie-in. "The whole idea of Pennzoil leading the parade with its shitty little car really pisses people off," Hixson says.
Others are more sanguine. Mike Scranton, who typically provides some of the more outrageous entries, says such a sponsorship "is pretty inevitable these days. I don't like sponsorships -- I hate those Bank U guys -- but I don't know what can be done."
For its part, Pennzoil says it decided to get involved for internal as well as external reasons. The company merged its consumer products division with Quaker State in 1998, and the new entity was looking for ways to let people know it was no longer the famously stuffy Pennzoil of old.
"I don't know if the old Pennzoil would have gotten involved, but we saw it as a way to incorporate something really unique," says Courtneye Barrett, Pennzoil's manager of marketing communications. "It's been really neat, especially as far as employee interest and involvement. We have a reception with the art car that our employees put together and we had a promotion where we invited employees to write an essay on why their boss should take them to lunch in the art car, and the winner was indeed driven to lunch by their boss in the art car. People love it -- you can be 60 years old, but when you get in that car you feel like you're 12."
An art car as part of an oil company's in-house morale-boosting contest? To some people, that's a sicker joke than any of the most tasteless parade entries.
Barrett, who acts as liaison between the company and the foundation, says she's aware that some participants recoil in horror at the thought of corporate sponsorship.
"I've been very sensitive to that -- I know they don't want to appear too corporate or compromise their artistic integrity, etc., etc," she says, perhaps more glibly than some art car artists would like. "We try not to do that -- we participate in the spirit of the event, and we don't dictate how the event should be run, or what sort of entries should be allowed."
Not surprisingly, Theis agrees that Pennzoil exhibits a sympathetic hands-off attitude toward the parade.
"They support us in ways that we think honor the spirit of the event .I guess, to me, I have been here long enough to understand what it takes in resources to keep this thing going, and I just hope that people appreciate that we can find a sponsor who supports the essence of what all this is about," she says.
Perhaps more surprisingly, some of the most vocal artists, ones who don't hesitate to criticize if they feel the event is messing up, echo Theis's view.
"They don't tell us what to do -- Pennzoil couldn't care less about what we do .You can have penises, tits, a controversial political position, it's all okay with them," says Harris, the creator of the Fruitmobile and a parade mainstay ever since. "Having a corporate sponsor is a hell of a lot better than trying to get funding from the [National Endowment for the Arts] and have some fucking redneck Republican senator tell us we can't show a woman's tits, or say, 'That's too controversial' about something."
"I think Susanne and everyone over at the Orange Show do a pretty good job of making sure the corporate sponsors don't mess things up," says the boundary- pushing Scranton.
But that does not mean all is right in parade-land. Even as they give a pass to Pennzoil, some artists say the Houston International Festival is ruining the parade.
The city-sponsored festival forces the parade to take a limited route that keeps viewers close to the booths of its licensees. Last year, after festival officials complained that the parade was too long and was keeping people from spending money while it went on, the number of entries was, for the first time, limited. No more than 240 cars are now allowed to participate. (The city also balked at the length of the growing parade, saying it consumed too much police time.)
"It used to meander all through downtown. Now it's just one block right through the festival," Harris says, exaggerating for effect.
She and some other artists want the Orange Show to end its association with the International Festival and move the parade to another date. The latest three-year contract between the two entities ended with this year's event, so a decision will have to be made one way or the other.
"If they sign back up with them, then next year the artists are going to have their own event," Harris says. "We're going to take it back .It's not that we won't also participate in their parade, but we will take it back and make it ours if we need to. The people will follow the artists."
Of course, talking about starting a rival parade is easier than actually doing it.
"I've thought about different ideas, but it's so time-consuming and expensive to pull off, I don't know if it will happen," says Scranton. "It would take someone with some big gonads and a whole lot of fucking time and energy to do it."
The festival no longer gives any money directly to the Orange Show Foundation, but as a city event it is exempt from being charged for many things that anyone putting on a parade by themselves would be hit with, like charges for police overtime, shutting down streets or getting a parade permit. Such costs could be anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000, Theis reckons.
She has heard the complaints about the festival. "People feel very passionate about it, and we want to do the thing that's right for the event," she says. "Part of what we're going to figure out is whether it's just the loudest people who feel that way, or does everybody feel that way."
There are some advantages to working with the festival beyond the saving of money, she says. The festival has a well-oiled publicity machine, and it does "provide a great experience for the spectator," she notes. "You can go hear some great music afterwards. It makes a nice package for people to do. Whether that is enough to have us continue with them is something we'll have to examine."
Breaking free might not be easy, though. International Festival officials have told the foundation that the parade is the festival's property. In the past, they've even sent out feelers to other arts groups around town, like DiverseWorks, to see if they would be interested in replacing the Orange Show.
Beth Craig is an independent contractor who works for the International Festival as liaison with the Orange Show. As owner of Beth Craig Events, she's responsible for helping put on events like the Art Car Parade and the Bank United Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Even though people inside and outside the Orange Show say there's tension between the festival and the parade, Craig says things are terrific.
"We think it's a great event -- they produce a great parade, and we provide a great venue and city services," she says.
She hasn't heard any complaints, she says, not even the big ruckus of last year when for the first time the number of entries was limited.
Perhaps 60 entrants had their applications to parade denied by Orange Show organizers, but Craig says, "As far as I know, they did not turn any people away." Cars that had paraded, unchanged, for many years were "rotated out" to allow new cars in, she says.
Craig says she has not heard anything that would indicate the festival and the Orange Show won't sign another contract, but Theis isn't so sure.
"The festival has been building a future without us, if I can read the tea leaves right," Theis says. "And we've been preparing ourselves to take on more of the task ourselves without them, but how quickly that can be done is hard to say."
A split raises the specter of competing art car parades. Of course, not splitting raises the same specter, if the highly annoyed artists can get their act together. Either way, the result could resemble the farce of the Westheimer Street Festival, a loosely organized street fair that eventually pissed off the gentrifying yuppies of Montrose enough that it was moved to various places downtown. A replacement fair was promptly resuscitated by a different organization at its original spot, put on whenever they can get the proper permits and leaving some visitors wondering which is the more artistically and politically correct one to attend.
"The worst-case scenario is that it turns into something like the Westheimer Street Festival, where no one knows where it is any given year or what it is," Theis says.
"It's never gonna be like it was in the early '90s, when it just took over downtown," Scranton says.
Some of that is just because key participants have aged. "At its peak, there were 56 cars that came in from out of state, and that helped the event grow to be this great national gathering of the art car clan," Theis says. "We've lost a bit of that because we've all gotten older, and people's idea of fun is no longer camping out for three weeks in a painted Citroën as they try to get to Houston."
But once the parade took the great leap it did by spontaneous combustion, the "old days" were doomed.
"Everything changed again for us in 1997 when The New York Times put a picture of the parade on the front page of their Sunday newspaper," Theis says. "Every pressure on us from every side has been to get more organized. The audience demands information about the cars, and the media demands information about the cars."
"If it had just stayed with the few artists doing it, it would be great and fun and quaint, but it wouldn't have become the huge thing it is," Harris says. "The artists want it to grow. It can't be the teeny parade it was when it first started."
The job of putting on what has become a giant parade has, in many senses, overwhelmed the original mission of the Orange Show Foundation. The parade doesn't really make anyone want to visit the McKissack home. And volunteers and staffers can often find themselves being taken away from the various in-school programs and research projects the foundation does to pitch in when the parade crunch hits.
But Theis says the parade also exemplifies the foundation's mission, which she says is to celebrate the art in daily life, the art created by nonprofessional artists who have followed their muse. Even if that muse tells them to turn their home into a monument to the orange, or to sheathe their house in beer cans.
"The great joy in visiting one of these types of places is meeting the person who's finally followed their inner voice," she says. "And the Art Car Parade is this moment when all these people who have experienced that in their own lives get to show their work. It's like a miracle. It's an incredible event for an organization like ours to have stumbled onto. It makes the mission real in ways that are almost unimaginable."
Certainly the current state of the Art Car Weekend, with corporate sponsorships, huge Dome parties, rules and restrictions on artists, would be "almost unimaginable" to those who were there at the beginning.
"You can't stay small," Theis says. "You don't have a choice."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.