When we handed Bruce Willenzik, mastermind behind the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, a copy of our paper, he happily informed us we were in fact third generation thieves. Our slogan, “We’re here cause we’re not all there” was first stolen by him years ago when he was in Washington. We found out this is only one of many “firsts” he can take credit for. Check it out.
AUSTIN DAZE: Where did you originally get it from?
BRUCE WILLENZIK: A record store in Port Townsend, Washington. If you were going down the main drag of Port Townsend it’s on the water side of the street about two-thirds of the way down. That’s where it came from.
AD: Let’s talk about the Christmas Bazaar. How did you get involved in doing this?
BW: The first thing I did was get a job at Armadillo World Headquarters in 1974 in the kitchen. I had cooked vegetarian beans for one of the staff people and I didn’t even know that she worked at Armadillo. And all these people at Armadillo said, “Oh man yours are better than mine can you come down tomorrow and show us how to do this?” I went and showed them how to cook them and a week later I was running the kitchen. In the later days I started the t-shirt branch, did merchandise, did security—all of operations. I had a real good friend, Lucinda Williams, who used to live under the card table at the foot of my bed when she first came to town. I ran into her and we got to talking. I went to get cigarettes and she said, “Get me two packs.” I had sent her down to the drag to get some presence and asked her, “Where’s your money?” She is such a kind person, she was giving it to an artist on the drag who had a new baby and was having health problems and she didn’t want this lady out in the weather so she gave her all her guitar case money. So she was telling me this story and said, “It’s a shame that they have to be in that crummy weather when they could be in a nice dry hall like this. What do you all have in December?” I told her we were basically closed and she said, “Well if you had all those artists in here you could sell nachos, you could sell beer, you could have money, and they would have a place to be.” That night I wrote a five year plan to build a Christmas show. I took it the next day to the management who said, “Nah, we’re not in the business.” That was 74’. By 75’ there was a bad cash crunch and by 76’ we were going to into bankruptcy and we needed a way to save it. Christmas Bazaar! Christmas Bazaar! Christmas Bazaar! By 1980 we paid off the bankruptcy with five days left to operate, through the Christmas Bazaar. It became this cash flow thing.
When it was finally over and they were going to tear down the place they had an auction and I bought the little electrical distribution system thinking, I might continue to do this show. I bought the rights and started to look for an alternate location. There was a grocery store we found in July. I spent months trying to get this place. It took until November to get a signed Agreement. We worked around the clock and got our Certificate of Occupancy the morning we were open for business. But what a great joy it was when we opened up. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Austin’s cultural future had a new stimulus inside it.
AD: What kind of cultural impact do you think the Christmas Bazaar has had on the community?
BW: It’s been a great way to broaden our cultural reach in the community. We had always seen the World Headquarters Concert Floor and Stage as 14,400 square feet where culture thrives and evolves and our job was to protect and feed that floor. The Christmas Bazaar was going to be the thing that nourished it as well. And it did. It allowed us to be more experimental with booking and do a jazz series.
We’ve also been a living laboratory and our job has been to protect culture and have it flourish. We’ve watched them grow. We took one guy who in his first year was making grouted wood beer signs with mirror scrap behind them to make them look like something. He quickly turned into one of the best jewelers in the country. And for 25 plus years has been winning Best in Show at almost every show he does. That’s because he was put in an environment in which he could grow. We’ve watched one after the other do that. We watched a whole group of Austin artists become the backbone of national art shows. And the community seems to be very supportive of what we do.
AD: You were the only reason we ever found to go to the Austin City Music Hall.
BW: As many problems as there were there it was still a joy—the staff was wonderful and we had a great time. It was great when we got the brand new Music Hall but there wasn’t really any room to expand and there are different codes for concerts and exhibitions. Concerts need five foot aisles, exhibitions need ten foot aisles. It’s built for five foot aisles—we can’t go back. We kind of panicked. Middle of August we had nothing and then I emailed my friends at the Economic Growth for the City and they had a solution: The Convention Center. They were helpful because we are the retail anchor for downtown, we are the anchor for them to build 2nd street and all that retail activity downtown and they needed us and we needed them.
AD: How was your first year at the Convention Center?
BW: It was scary but it was great. One of the first things we did was ask for character points. They were wonderful with us. They really wanted us to be comfortable. We found out that we had enough expansion space in that room, in that building, that if we really wanted to we could add a dozen booths a year for 80 years.
When we got in there it was very tense. Luckily we had been thinking for years about the possibility of getting to expand and how we would handle more room. We had all this trial stuff on the shelf. We were throwing stuff together and I was biting on fingernails and sweating profusely and sure enough it worked. The artists were so surprised by the clean air—everybody stayed healthy and they didn’t have to clean their display cases every morning. So we decided we are going to have to teach these people permanent non conventionality because we are back and we are going to stay there and in a few years we’ll go to a bigger room.
AD: A lot of your artists have been with you for years. Is there a demand for new artists?
BW: There has been a lot of demand for new artists but one of the things we were concerned about is that we didn’t want to bring in 100 new booths at once because you have to build the crowd—supply and demand at the same time. We’ve been smart about that and we have been working on it and are just as excited as can be to be working on it. We are now almost fully using the smallest rooms. The security is wonderful, the parking is great. We now have new things like free passes if you are staying at the hotels, and posting office for shipment.
AD: Are your artists worried about the economy?
BW: Anybody who hasn’t worried about it I think would be silly. An artist said the other day, “Bruce, I work all year round to get ready for this show. Everything else I do is to get me in a position to get into the start of your show to make the money that allows me to have the next year of my life and pay my mortgage and get my kids through school. It’s half my annual work load and half my annual revenue. Please let it be half my worry.” I had to laugh at that because it made sense—they are entitled to it.
You know after 9/11 I watched retail nationally, and every person I talked to said it was off 40%. I talked to bands and they were getting cancellations up to 40%. I talked to Clifford Antone, people like that, and everything was off by 40%. My brother has a big retail store here and they were off 40%. So I figured we were going to be off 40% and that’s what we prepared for. We had the busiest year ever. We had people waiting in line for hours in the rain to get in because it felt good and they loved it. My sweetheart Annie was working the box office and she kept telling me to get more Kleenex. I saw grown adults burst into tears of joy when they got their ticket after waiting in line for an hour. I just was overwhelmed by it. We asked our artists to find out from the customers what it was about that year that was making it a huge success. The answer: It felt good and it was real. And once they came they had to come back every day so our crowd was maxed out. I don’t know if that will happen again.
AD: Let’s talk about that. For people that don’t know, what makes this so special? What makes it real? Because you have options–you can go to a store and do your shopping there.
BW: There is nothing else like it in the world. It’s a one-of-a-kind show because we didn’t model it off of anything else. It came from Armadillo’s funky business model of being a for profit community operation. We built this thing for community. These artists cherish the chance to be there. It’s the best stuff because we told the artists 30 years ago if you are going to stay with us you have to prove to us that you are improving every year. You have to demonstrate that you are working to get better every year. A lot of these people have been with us for 25 years. After that many years of staying up worrying about how to impress me they have gotten very good at what they do. It’s also not like any other show because if you spent 25 years doing a 2 week show that’s a whole year of your being so it forms a community. Artists say they travel all over the country and go to shows they have never been to and as soon as they see a fellow Armadillo artist they have a brother or sister right there with them. They are family and take care of each other wherever they go. So it has that bond which came right out of the World Headquarters.
AD: What do you think about all the other Bazaars and festivals in town?
BW: It’s a funny thing about that. Starting in our fifth year we noticed that other events started calling themselves Christmas Bazaars. And we had picked that name because the only thing we could find that had a Christmas Bazaar was one little church and we figured it was basically unused so let’s grab it. By 1980, they were doing a Last Chance Bazaar at the Palmer. The next year there was the International Bazaar in Houston. Every year they would last a year or two and then go away. And then Blue Genie came along who did a magnificent thing, they are a wonderful group, and they were so careful not to compete—they call it the Blue Genie Christmas Art Bazaar. It is wonderful to have them in town and operating. We always figured when we were in the concert business that the more good concert venues that were successful the more people got in the habit of going to concerts and the better everybody did. So we had the same attitude about Christmas Bazaars. We encouraged other people and helped if they asked.
The first problem that we had was in ‘84 when a big downtown developer people decided to do the Dillo Christmas downtown and spent about 400K trying to force us out of business. We survived and they didn’t. He wanted to create a new culture for Austin that was different than what the Armadillo had. That’s why we wanted to move downtown and that was one of the reasons why we were happy to move to the Austin City Music Hall. I thought to myself, we are going to be such an asset to this city, with so much community good will, that no one will ever attack us again. And we did. I immediately got involved in arts politics and in three years I was on the Arts Commission for the city. I’ve been on it for 20 years. Last year, the Keep Austin Bazaar Bazaar guys came along and probably assumed that the Music Hall wasn’t going to get ready, probably assumed that we weren’t going to be there, and thought it was an opportunity to be “the” Christmas Bazaar. Well, I wished they would have talked to us first because we could have given them a really good idea on how to create a distinct identity—there is plenty of room for more shows. They started with an idea that we really like which was to get street vendors off the street and into a warm place to sell. It was the same idea that Lucinda Williams gave me in ‘74. If they had asked us for help we would have been all over helping them but instead they chose a different tactic and confusion came out about what was what and who was who. And there are laws about creating confusion when it comes to identity of businesses. So we had no choice but to take legal action and get them to come to an agreement that in the future all their ads would have their name before the designation Christmas Bazaar. We hope they will behave themselves this year and that they will establish themselves like we did and that in years to come they will be an asset to the community. It’s a maturity process and we went through it. We were kids once who didn’t know any better so you have to give them sum slack on that as long as they aren’t hostile. And if they become hostile, we have very good attorneys. But we want these things to grow, if your mission is to grow cultural prosperity for the community and they are in a community trying to do it that is good. But if they are going to do it by confusing people with identity that’s bad. We built our identity and we are entitled to it.
We had a lot to do with building Austin’s identity and worked hard at it. We worked for 30 years to keep that identity of Austin as this free spirited, accepted city where creativity was rewarded—that’s very important to us. If they want to be part of that free spirit in Austin and part of that creativity and originality they will be rewarded for it. If it’s not original, then it’s going to be harder. That’s one thing about the Austin community: there is tremendous respect for originality.
AD: Have you ever had vendors that you couldn’t nurture anymore and had to let go?
BW: Yes. When someone new comes in we give them a tremendous amount of patience and a lot of help. We really like to match them up with a friend who they trust, a senior artist in a mentor/protégé relationship for at least a year before they get set free on the floor. Not a mentor on how to be an artist but on the culture of this show. All of our artists have a peer pressure going amongst them to work together to build that prosperity around the show and the community. If they think anybody is slacking they are all over the slacker. We have a mission and we’ve stuck to it and we plan to stick to it for a long time.
AD: What’s new this year?
BW: We finally have a chance to do a lot of new things this year. Not only are we bringing in new artists but we are bringing in a lot of new musicians. We started a lunch time series where we have a concert every day from 12:30 to 3:30 and showcase some emerging artists. There is a story behind this and how it happened. One of the artists spent about five years trying to get in the show was Russell Smith. Russell and his wife Barbara have a daughter, Sahara Smith, who is an aspiring folk singer. And when she was 16 or 17 we brought her up to do a showcase. My old friend Kevin Wommack, who I gave my first job to at the World Headquarters, is in music management. Russell told him to come see his daughter. So there she was in front of that historic banner that was at Willie Nelson’s first Fourth of July party and Kevin thought she was terrific. Kevin called me up this year and said he is working with Sahara and she is doing an album and is going to break out nationally. He wanted to get her back on stage again because he needed to do some publicity pictures. That turned into the idea of the lunch time gig. And then we decided to find some other breakout gigs. It’s another second generation breaking into another area. So we have Dan Dyer and Band of Heathens booked among others.
We decided to stock this thing: we’ve got 35 musical acts in 13 days. We get to bring back some of our favorites. Butch Hancock didn’t like playing the music hall because he would get sick from the dust, but the convention center? No problem. So he’s back this year.
AD: It’s funny how it’s all full circle. It started out with the music and the Bazaar was a branch off from that and now it’s coming back to the music.
BW: That’s right. It’s all about circles. That’s how systems work. That’s how life works. We just believe every circle you connect gives you the strength to connect more. It’s worked very well for us and it’s worked very well for community.
AD: This city is changing so much. Where do you think we are headed?
BW: A couple of years ago I got on the board of an urban issues think tank called Livable City and one of our earlier conversations was talking about what Austin is. And I brought up what someone had said to me once, “Austin is to America what Venice was to the Renaissance.” It was this little itty bitty place with this huge influence. And we proceeded to flourish off of that. And one of the board members said, “Yeah it’s still Venice but it’s surrounded by Phoenix.” We can’t stop that but we can keep the central identity on it. The Armadillo philosophy from the beginning has always been: You bring out the best in others by showing the best in yourself. If you are successful in doing it then everybody is stuck with the experience of dealing with only the best.