While it might seem self-serving to pick two of our own for our annual Heritage Award, the rest of the Board of Directors felt overwhelmingly compelled to honor our longest-serving board members before we got too far down the line honoring other worthy candidates.
So if you’ll indulge us, and we suspect you’ll be more than happy to, we must pay homage to two folks who have spent many years and countless hours working to revive and preserve downtown Austin, while running popular business(es) in the heart of it.
“If there are any two people who have done more to ‘keep Austin weird’ than Esther’s Follies co-founders Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton, I’d be hard-pressed to name them.” – Virginia B. Wood, Austin Chronicle
In the late 70s, Sixth St. offered little to tempt college-goers and suburbanites to it; enter Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton, who met at UT-Austin in the late 60s. Already operating The Tavern and the famed, but long-gone Liberty Lunch since 1975, they decided to test the waters in 1977 with an April Fools event on Sixth Street; a talent show in what’s-now-known-as Flamingo Cantina. It was a smash; with singers, dancers, mimes and others improvising dances around a sprinkler in tribute to aquatic-choreographer Esther Williams. This vaudeville-revival event spawned “Esther’s Follies” – with accompanying visual easter eggs to Esther and her pool.
In 1983, a fire destroyed the club, and they moved to The Ritz Theater for a few years (where they would later promote punk shows), then to Sixth & Neches…and, then in 1988, they took over the last of the downtown topless bars (city council outlawed them in the area), the “Embassy Room,” to open up “The Velveeta Room, ” as stand up comedy was all the rage by this time. Eventually, the two, Esther’s and the “Velv” as it’s known to insiders, did meet as adjacent venues at Sixth St. and Red River.
Through Esther’s, Shannon and Michael have produced award-winning political comedy theater for over 40 years (they just won their 13th “Best of” in the Austin Chronicle).
This history is thoroughly explored in a recent book by Austin’s own Jesse Sublett.
Eventually they went on to open other restaurants such as: Patsy’s Cafe on Ben White Blvd., complete with Texas-twanged funky decor; re-opened the historic Tavern after it had been closed for a number of years; and most recently, re-opened Star Seeds Cafe – talk about keeping Austin weird (and well-fed!).
Besides all of that, they maintain an amazing artist colony (“The Farm”) in deep east Austin with historic houses/studios, farm animals, gardens, common work and play areas, along with the requisite funky water elements in cement and colored tile pieces.
Through all of this – and because all of this, and their love of Austin – Shannon and Michael have engaged in every opportunity they could to both revive Sixth Street/aka “Pecan Street” as a nightly destination for Austinites and tourists alike, and preserve the funky-feel that is its history. From the early days of mom and pop businesses, started by people from diverse backgrounds, with kids playing in the dirt streets, to the streetcar days of long dress-skirts and top hats, to the oversized cars and sense of prosperity of the 50s/early 60s to the desolate and seedy late 60s and 70s to the artist takeover and punk scene of the early 80s, the history is indeed rich – and should not be washed away.
They worked with a few Sixth St. business owners and preservationist Dr. Emma Lou Linn to form The Pecan Street Association in order to put on the very first Pecan Street Festival in 1979 – as a means of reviving interest in downtown. With persistence, it worked…bringing at least some increased level of activity during the early 80s recession. It’s grown from a couple of blocks of artists being visited by a few thousand folks to 300+ artists, 3 stages and 250,000 people each weekend!
Both Michael and Shannon continue to serve on the Pecan Street Association board, while Shannon is the past president of the 6ixth St. Property Owners Association, and served on the boards of the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Austin Arts Commission, and the Task Force for Street Closures (focusing on Sixth St. closures). Shannon also serves as Vice President of the board of ECHO, and last year, won the “I am Austin Woman!” award.