Neighborhood bar stays constant amidst chaos
By Brendan Sinclair Daily Texan Staff
Date 03/31/1999 - Twenty-five years ago, Hole
in the Wall opened its doors for the first time and began collecting
Stories of the time Don Henley joined Mojo Nixon
onstage to duet on Nixon's classic song "Don Henley Must Die." Stories
of the LeRoy Brothers breaking into a sibling feud onstage, beating
each other with their guitars while a Norwegian music critic cheered
on from the bar. Stories so strange they must be true and fish tales
so full of shit they can't be told with a straight face.
Hole in the Wall owner Debbie Rombach took
over the club and music venue last August.
Regardless of the truth behind some of the Hole's
stories, they are all entertaining yarns that have served to keep
the club and bar in business longer than most of the University's
students have been alive. Doubtless the Hole's weighty significance
in the Austin music scene has played a big part in its longevity.
Having served as the first showcase for artists like Fastball and
Nancy Griffith, and having hosted some of the more buzz-worthy artists
in the South by Southwest music festival each year, the Hole's commitment
to live music has served it well. Another factor responsible for
the Hole's continued operation, and the source of many of its stories,
is a constant clientele. While the business brought in by a popular
local band playing a gig one weekend is nice, it's the constant
influx of money from the Hole's regulars that provides the bar's
financial backbone. Hole in the Wall co-owner Debbie Rombach lends
some perspective as to the size of the Hole's repeat-customer base.
"We're more like Cheers than Cheers is. We have
about 300 regulars that I know by name. And then there's a bunch
more that I don't know by name, but I know their faces."
A long-time employee of the Hole before being entrusted
with its ownership by founder Doug Cugini last August, Rombach recognizes
the tight connection between the Hole and its consistent customers.
"It's a family atmosphere in a way," she said.
"It's just a real bizarre family." "Atmosphere" is a word that comes
up a lot when describing the Hole. From the pea-green and yellow
exterior, to the worn and beaten bar, to the Elvis shrine above
the stage, the Hole practically drips with atmosphere (just check
the bathrooms). For many regulars, the atmosphere is the best reason
to come to the Hole.
Keith Duff has been frequenting the Hole for roughly
a decade. "I wouldn't come here for the cuisine. Unless Alfred [the
club's cook] is making one of his specials, the food's not great.
They do have some good tequila and scotch, but it's really the people
I come for. It's a pretty weird, diverse crowd of good, serious
Mike Burns, a rookie regular of only three years,
agrees. "It's the people here. The Hole is populated by cartoon
characters straight out of Saturday morning TV. They're bizarre,
Burns' comparison of the Hole's regulars to cartoon
characters is almost profound in its suitability. The denizens of
the Hole are entertaining, vivid personalities that only come into
conflict in jest, to set up a riotous punchline or to play off each
other's wit. And much like the world of a cartoon, the Hole itself
is a surreal place where time seemingly does not exist.
"Nothing's really changed much in 25 years," says
Rombach. "We got some new chairs, but nothing so drastic that it
would freak everybody out."
As bartender Brooks Brannon, himself a Hole regular
of 23 years, will affirm, "This place looks pretty much the same
as it did a couple decades ago, only with more crap on the walls."
Even though it might not have been around since
the beginning, the "crap" on the walls of the Hole has almost as
much to say as the customers.
The back wall of the club is covered with caricatures
of familiar faces. They aren't famous faces, though. They're the
faces of the first regulars the Hole had, familiar because a cursory
glance along the bar on any given evening will more than likely
turn up a few of those original regulars, always eager to share
with you a good drink or a better anecdote.
"There used to be this Mardi Gras parade here in
Austin," recounts Duff, "and the Hole always entered a float."
Duff explained how he and a friend commandeered
a school bus full of Hole in the Wall regulars in costumes straight
out of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The group wound up crashing
a black-tie affair of the parade's biggest sponsors. "
Before long," he says chuckling, "the party turned
ugly, but they had a hell of a time throwing out 50 noisy drunks.
That was the last year they had the parade. I don't know if it was
on our account, but I sometimes wonder."
"Some say that it's the people that go to the Hole
in the Wall that make it the Hole in the Wall," says Brannon.
"Because it's been here for such a long time, time has given it
extra character. There are lots of stories of people that have come
here, that met here, got married, and now their children come here
and are old enough to drink. All kinds of stories."