I’ll Be Loving You, Esther’s

Esther’s Follies, Austin’s iconic comedy theater, celebrates 40 years.

I'll Be Loving You, Esther's

On a late Thursday evening in Downtown Austin, the streets are waking up as bar-goers, college students, and tourists ready themselves for a Sixth Street crawl. At the end of the strip, where Sixth meets Red River, the sound of nearly 200 people laughing and cabaret-style music bellows from a teal building adorned with Christmas lights. Passersby who peer through the large open windows might see a Patsy Cline look-alike pulling golf clubs from her dress, a woman mystically floating above water, or a small dog being shot out of a cannon. This is Esther’s Follies.

Just a few days earlier, Esther’s co-founder and star Shannon Sedwick—best known around town for her impressions of Cline and Ann Richards—sat in the empty theater, recounting how it all began. Since the day she and her husband, Michael Shelton, first pulled back the curtain on April 1, 1977, they’ve been the showrunners behind the iconic vaudeville comedy venue that deems itself “Austin’s answer to Saturday Night Live.”

“We’re pretty much open to making fun of anybody,” Sedwick says, from Republicans and Democrats to hippies and college students.

Though often compared to SNL, Sedwick says Esther’s is much more musical than most comedy shows. Each night kicks off with a fast-paced news medley that pairs well-known songs with headlines from that week. From there, the cast of about 11 launches into a number of sketches that poke fun at the types of young men and women who might be found on Sixth Street to what former President Barack Obama is doing now that he’s out of office. The Esther’s team tries to make sure a joke lands every 30 seconds, always offering a distinctly Austin perspective. And every couple of segments, magician Ray Anderson performs a comedy-driven magic show, pulling unsuspecting audience members onstage to help him. “The best thing about doing comedy is making people feel really good for a few hours,” Shelton says.

Esther’s—so named after the actress Esther Williams—got its start much like the rest of Austin’s most famous venues. Sedwick and Shelton were just a couple of UT freshmen in the late ’60s who ran with a great idea and never looked back. Sedwick, now 67, was a drama major from Fort Worth, and Shelton, who’s the same age, was a Houston boy studying architecture. They met while working on a play produced by the Curtain Club, a now-defunct drama society created by UT students in 1908 that once included the raw talents of people like Eli Wallach, Harvey Schmidt, Texas Gov. John Connally, Jayne Mansfield, and Walter Cronkite. From insulting UT’s higher powers like Frank Erwin to the time one of the actresses went topless on stage, Sedwick spent her time in the club as an actress and Shelton as a set designer—roles they still maintain today.

“We were all just a bunch of hippies coming out in the Student Union to perform,” Sedwick says. “Those experiences eventually morphed into Esther’s.”

Though they spent nearly four years at UT, neither Sedwick or Shelton completed their degrees. In 1975, they bought a space on south Second Street and opened Liberty Lunch, a music venue and restaurant that hosted acts like the Dave Matthews Band, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana. While the venue continued for nearly another 30 years, the couple kept moving. Next, it was a short stint running a sandwich shop, and then it was Esther’s Follies—then called Esther’s Pool—which first stood behind the old Antone’s on Sixth and Congress.  “I don’t know how funny we were, and the shows were long,” Sedwick says. “But it was an immediate success.”

Esther’s comfortably made a home in that venue for about six years until a freak fire consumed the building in 1987, ousting the comedians. They temporarily took over the Ritz—before it became a movie theater—using the space as part comedy venue and part punk club. It was there that actress Lily Tomlin and Texas Gov. Ann Richards once headlined a benefit in the company’s honor, dressed as dancing Ritz crackers, to help the troupe get back on its feet. From there, they briefly set up shop in what is now Coyote Ugly before finally landing their current building. They also own the neighboring  comedy club and bar for stand-up comics and open mic nights, The Velveeta Room. “I don’t think we could have happened in Dallas, Houston, or any other city,” Sedwick says. “Austin was just accepting of our growing pains and Sixth Street is our home where we’ve had great love.”

Though team members come and go, Sedwick and Shelton strongly believe in the talents of their writers, actors, musicians, and set designers. Sedwick says the skits are ever-changing and if viewers are looking for a completely new show, they should return about every six months. They meet a few times in the beginning of the week to write and toss around new ideas, then rehearse up until opening night.

Once the show comes to an end on Thursday night, and the actors all take their bows, Sedwick and the rest of her team line up by the entrance. They shake hands and share smiles with the audience as they file out of the theater, murmurs of “thank yous” heard all around. It’s traditions like these that remind Sedwick and Shelton that their jobs serve as what they call “humor therapy,” something they’ve gladly provided for 40 years. To document the long and colorful history of Esther’s, the couple is working with writer Jesse Sublett on a book tentatively titled Esther’s Follies: Funny Business—a play on the title of a closing set they used to perform.

“I’m hoping we’ll be able to keep this going at least another 10 years,” Sedwick says, declaring that even if she can no longer perform, the show will go on. “The premise will always work. The people, the cast, the crew are who make it what it is.”

 

 

 

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