46 years ago, back before the live music capital of the world was world famous, Bob Ogden, a civil engineer and real estate man, wanted a place with a piano bar where he could hang out with his buddies, listen to live music, and dance with his wife, Mary. He purchased an old train depot on the outskirts of Austin for $300. He brought in three retired railcars. He hired a Goodyear tire salesman named Donn to play the baby grand and brought them all to an address on 5th St and W. Lynn. And Donn Adelman still holds court behind that piano twice a week…46 years later!
It is a dance hall. It is a honky tonk. It is a piano bar… even a wedding chapel. It has been a gathering place for generations of people to celebrate live music, milestones, and leave a troubled world behind. Babies have taken their first steps here. Lives are remembered here.
Bartenders, staff, and musicians have tenures that have lasted decades. The Donn’s community is an unforgettable cast of characters. 90-year-old Shelly Kantor (The Chick Magnet) gave up going to a senior center and took his dancing shoes to Donn’s 10 years ago. Master pedal steel player, Danny Hawk, has a tiny flying marsupial under his shirt during shows. Reuben Hernandez keeps up the 70-year tradition of his dad, with the Nash Hernandez Orchestra. Chris Gage tours with Jerry Jeff Walker when not holding down Monday nights (for 25 years). Jerry Jeff comes in on occasion because it is his neighborhood bar. George Strait and Carlos Montoya played here. Jose Greco danced here. Movies were shot here. The Donn’s tribe is a cross-section of the kind of town Austin was and is.
Donn Adelman likes to say, we are not trying to “Keep Austin Weird.” “We are keeping Austin Austin.”
One patron mused, “There is something in the air here… or maybe it’s in the carpet.”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t break it,” says Donn.
“If Austin is the live music capital of the world, this is the oval office,” offers one of the several resident musicians.
It is a living, breathing time capsule of old values, the Great American Songbook, and a place for up and comers to test their metal, wood, and wire.
Donn’s is still here because of the love and philanthropy of one family that favors tradition over money. It is still here because of the dedication of Donn, Arleen, the staff, and musicians who know how to deliver the best of what “old” Austin is all about.
At a time when people decry the demolition of tradition, the film preserves the story of a neighborhood bar dedicated to great music and small-town civility; a story of how people come together to love and support one another. A story where there is no distance or velvet ropes dividing artists and patrons. We are all singing and dancing to the same songs whether we are 21 or 90. Donn is 78. We are on the same train and we are going to the same place. We are coming home. And we bring the movie audience with us while we still can. All aboard!
About the Filmmaker
Jay Curlee, US Army Vietnam-era veteran, has worked in Television and Film since 1975. More than 2000 commercials and 300 long-form projects, including an award winning PBS series on aging, “Growing Old in a New Age.” This was an Annenberg/CPB Project.
In 2006, he made “Rocking the Boat: A Musical Conversation and Journey.” RTB was about Texas-born blues legend, Delbert McClinton, and several of his musical friends (mostly Texans). RTB won best Music Doc at the 2006 Lone Star International Film Festival and Best Doc at the 2006 Woods Hole Film Festival. It opened the 37th USA Film Festival in Dallas.
Curlee has been an independent, work for hire, writer/producer/director since 1993. Jay has been an Austin resident for four years and is a member of AFS.
An interrogator and Chinese linguist in the Army, Curlee’s favorite genre and style has been vérité documentary. He loves drawing stories from people. He is also musician and composer. His passion for American music and desire to leave a record of great but relatively unknown artists, drives his work. Some of his music documentary and archivist influences are Scorsese, Les Blank, and the Lomax’s.