NOTE: This blog was published on statesman.com in October 2017. I did eat the bugs. When my coworkers ignored this story and failed to promote it on the homepage, I didn't forgive them.
I ate this bug for journalism. At the State Fair, you can eat one, too.
Dawn of the Picnic: 40 years ago Eddie Wilson got Willie off to a steady start
NOTE: This story was published in the Austin American-Statesman in 2013.
NOTE: This story was first published on statesman.com in August 2018 and later in the Austin American-Statesman. It took several interviews with Wilson to get a handle on what he might do.
‘Trying not to get kicked off this curb’: In conversation with Threadgill’s owner Eddie Wilson
By Dave Thomas
The doors haven’t yet opened to Threadgill’s World Headquarters on a Tuesday morning and owner Eddie Wilson is leaning back in a chair, wrapping up a story about his mother’s nursery school that ends with the punchline “my mother waterboarded the deaf-mute son of the governor’s lawyer!”
He’s kidding, of course. The new student wouldn’t eat his cabbage and tried to hold his breath until he passed out, only to be “revived” with cold water. Perhaps that was standard practice in mid-1950s Austin.
Wilson has a way with words and isn’t beyond stretching things a little bit to make a story better, or just to amuse himself.
I’m here to nail down the questionable future of this restaurant at 301 W. Riverside Drive, but Wilson seems tired of the future right now. The interview begins off-subject and mostly stays there. I’d suspect he’s cheering himself up, telling old stories to an attentive new audience.
But the past has its dips as well, and with a moment’s more reflection on his mother’s nursery school, he deflates a bit.
“That was Beulah ... We lost her Sept. 1, 1986. She was 64 and I was 42 and it’s all crystal clear.”
Unlike much of our interview, the 74-year-old Wilson doesn’t pause to recollect these dates and ages. This painful memory is right there. At the moment, it escapes my notice that Sept. 1 isn’t far away. I’d reckon Wilson is quite aware.
“I miss her every day.”
The Future of Threadgill's World Headquarters
“I’ve spent most of my adult life trying not to get kicked off this curb,” Wilson said in an early August interview, cleverly referencing nearly a decade’s worth of struggle as founder of the Armadillo World Headquarters — which sat right about here right about a lifetime ago.
At that interview he said “we do $4 million a year in gross business, but we don’t make anything, because the property taxes increased 350 to 450 percent in the last five years. We hadn’t made any money since all that started.”
It’s a struggle many Austin restaurants are facing — the historic Frisco Shop was a high-profile victim, but other closures are hotly rumored.
It’s not a new struggle for Wilson — American-Statesman stories in September 2012 and November 2017 heralded new leases with the Moton Crockett family that would help keep Threadgill’s World Headquarters open. But the intervals between relief and impending doom are growing shorter.
A week after our initial interview, Wilson told Statesman multimedia journalist Ana Ramirez that the downtown store would certainly close within three months and that he was going to auction off the treasures on the walls. A phone call after that had Wilson not so sure, looking forward to a meeting with a Dallas businessman. The next week, Wilson was excitedly talking about the possibility of a new location in far South Austin to replace — or maybe even exist in addition to — the downtown site.
“My life is like a yard full of leaves in a high wind right now,” he said by phone one afternoon.
Wait, a new location? Well, the leaves are still swirling.
“I found a place and thought I was going to do it,” Wilson says. “And then decided that I just didn’t have the energy or the wherewithal to do it. I could’ve made the place work that I found, but I’m ... I’m kinda tired.
“The best thing that’s happened to me today is the four Ibuprofen I took for my left hip worked.”
If the downtown location does close — and it seems to be just a matter of time — don’t rule out an auction. Wilson says the standing-room-only auction he held in January 2015 “was one of the strangest, most exciting days of my life.”
So it’s no surprise that I’m visiting Wilson just a day behind Robb Burley — whose New Braunfels-based Burley Auction Group hosted the 2015 auction. Burley had spent the day at Threadgill’s gathering information for an appraisal.
But though Wilson’s an inveterate collector of old stuff — the giant neon Night Hawk sign, the Armadillo art squad posters, the wooden sign for the Garner & Smith bookstore that once drew him to the Drag — it’s not the stuff that he’s most worried about.
Echoing a quote he gave the Statesman when his original Threadgill’s restaurant burned down in August 1982, he says he’s most concerned about looking out for his staff.
“I’ve got 100 employees here,” Wilson says. “It keeps me awake at night.”
The early years of Eddie Wilson (Abridged)
Beulah Wilson’s Day Nursery School had a jukebox. She purchased it from a salvage yard for next to nothing, Wilson says. “And it just boomed.”
Wilson spent his formative years watching his mother cook and care for young people at her home on Avenue B in Hyde Park across the street from the Church of Christ. His father had died in World War II and though he had a stepfather who gave his name, love and support, Wilson makes no secret of his enduring bond with his mother — it is her picture on the front of the menus at his restaurants.
But that jukebox ... man, Wilson’s long association with music might well find its birthplace in those 78 rpm records.
And so it was, after serving in the Marine Reserves, teaching and coaching high school football, and working as a suit-wearing PR man for the U.S. Brewers Association, that Eddie Wilson ended up as manager for Shiva’s Headband — an Austin band often labeled psychedelic rock, but in truth dodging easy classification. In turn, that job led him to become founder of the famed Austin music venue Armadillo World Headquarters.
There’s no need here to go into the details of the iconic AWHQ — which hosted bands from AC/DC to Frank Zappa over the course of a tumultuous decade.
(It might be quickly recalled as where Willie Nelson brought the hippies and the rednecks together one fateful night in 1972, but Wilson isn’t keen to be remembered for that: “I was always labeled with that ‘Progressive Country’ (expletive) thing. We wanted to have something a little bit more like an ‘opera house.’”)
Several years before the AWHQ closed, Wilson was already out, operating a 30-seat restaurant on Sabine Street called The Raw Deal. But he had his eyes on a bigger prize.
Kenneth Threadgill had shut down his storied beer joint in 1974, 40 years after he bought it and secured the first post-Prohibition beer license in Travis County. It had been vacant for five years when Eddie Wilson made his move to purchase the place on North Lamar Boulevard, which opened for business on Jan. 1, 1981.
“What I had in mind was a place that was steeped in Austin music history: a restaurant with a bar, a collection of local music artifacts, and a kitchen that served the comfort food my mother made,” Wilson wrote in his 2017 book “Armadillo World Headquarters.”
And, not too far from his jukebox roots, he added that’d he’d like “a little acoustic music on the side now and then.”
It was a hit.
Eddie Wilson and the Rise of Threadgill's
“Threadgill’s was Austin’s first theme restaurant, and the theme was Austin,” longtime journalist and Austinite John Morthland wrote. For awhile, before his death in 1986, Kenneth Threadgill would sing every Wednesday night, just as he did when it was his place and a haven for performers of all sorts, including Janis Joplin.
On Aug. 1982, the whole restaurant burned down — everything but the outside walls went up in flames. Wilson kept his staff busy serving food under tents in the parking lot before reopening in just over three months. That was 36 years ago, and Threadgill’s now stands alongside any longtime Austin eatery when terms like “iconic” or “legendary” are thrown around.
Given the long-term success of the original restaurant (Wilson says its future “requires an increase in sales that I’ll think we’ll get ... a couple neighborhoods are growing toward it”), there was much fanfare when the downtown location opened in October 1996.
Built where a Marimont Cafeteria had long stood, the new restaurant was a success, paying off for its investors “before boomtown economics caught up with us.”
Whether the future holds three Threadgill’s restaurants or just one, it’s clear that this was his true calling: He has grown old with Threadgill’s.
A 1986 profile by Brad Buchholz describes Wilson as a “respectable, middle-aged Teddy Roosevelt with a syrupy Texas drawl.”
These days he’s got a leonine mane of white hair and a white goatee sinking into an increasingly jowly mug, along with a voice that can dip into a deep rasp for emphasis.
Asked why he stuck with Threadgill’s after such a storied succession of other jobs. His reply is humor at first: “I must’ve been making a little bit of money at some point. I never did that with any of the others.”
But then he pauses. A moment’s more reflection.
“I’ve really loved it. Feeding people is probably the best DNA reflection of my mother.”