True Grit
Urban (Cowboy) Legend

No (mechanical) bull: Travolta, Winger & Gilley's forever changed Houston

No (mechanical) bull: How Travolta, Winger & Gilley's changed Houston

Editors Note: The opening of PBR recalls the heyday of Gilley's and the Urban Cowboy craze, so we're re-posting this story than ran March 30, 2010.

We’d like you to stop for a minute and consider Houston and its culture, then answer the following question. A perfect score will guarantee you a deep-fried sense of pride.

What is the date and location of the most important event in Houston’s history? Describe the event’s historical ramifications.

(a) August, 1836, confluence of White Oak and Buffalo bayous

(b) July 21, 1969, landing site of the Apollo 11 moon mission

(c) Sept. 8, 1863, Sabine Pass

(d) June 6, 1980, Pasadena

Correct answer (d.) On June 6, 1980, our long-neglected city and its refinery-studded sister to the south, Pasadena, finally got some street cred in the age of Dallas upon the release of the romantic drama Urban Cowboy, a gripping tale of the love triangle between country boy Bud (John Travolta), cowgirl Sissy (Debra Winger) and a mechanical bull (the center of entertainment in a sprawling Pasadena honky-tonk named Gilley’s).

Historical ramifications: For the first time in history, Houston found itself in vogue. The music and the close-ups of young John Travolta and Debra Winger stirring up trouble and sawdust at Gilley’s nightclub generated overnight interest in the Houston scene and the aforementioned bar. America wanted in.

City girls finally had an excuse to run out and buy a cute pair of cowboy boots. Guys no longer had to go to a Western dress store to get shirts with pointy-pocket flaps and pearl snap buttons. They could be found at JC Penney. Once proud city slickers started shrink-wrapping themselves into pairs of freshly pressed Levis before heading out to dance classes.

Wait a minute – dance classes?

Yes, indeedy. After all Travolta’s choreographed boot-scootin’ across Gilley’s dance floor — with a Lone Star jammed firmly into his back jean pocket — the country two-step, the waltz and, of course, the Cotton-Eyed Joe high-tailed it into the cool category of mainstream dance culture. It even spawned a new industry: Country western dance classes, led by retired small-town hairdressers, barmaids and anyone else whose mascara was heavy enough.

These were guys who previously wouldn’t be caught dead on a dance floor, but all of a sudden chicks were swooning over any rugged cowboy-type who could cut a rug. Since Marlboro Men were in distinctly short supply within the city limits, these inner-city interlopers two-stepped in to fill the void.

Western wannabes from all over the country actually booked trips to Houston as tourists to get a taste of the real (real urban, that is) country lifestyle. But more than that, the exalted honky-tonk and new cowboy-chic spread from smelly old Pasadena to points across the country faster than a new strain of swine flu. People were decking out in western duds and flocking to Urban Cowboy outposts from Washington, D.C. to Seattle – and sales of Lone Star Beer spiked across the country due to the brew’s prominent appearances in the movie.

Urban Cowboy did for Lone Star what E.T. did for Reese’s Pieces. And country record producers never had it so good.

No slap at HTown

But why, exactly, did this cinematic romance make such an impact? The only feature that sets this romance apart from so many others was, indeed, Mickey Gilley’s ball-busting play-toy, the mechanical bull. It was just another way for guys to measure their guyness. But when Sissy steps in and excels in rubbing her Wranglers around on it and not falling, well, Bud just couldn’t stand it and, in an ensuing argument, smacks Sissy across the face.

It was definitely a movie of its time. Several such incidents of what we now refer to domestic abuse are portrayed in Urban Cowboy as a way for the man to get his way or to emphasize his point, just another pitfall of a relationship gone sour.

As the movie opens, Bud is leaving his hometown of Spur to go to the big city to find work. His ma warns him that his breakfast is getting cold, but he’s in too much of a hurry and gives hasty hugs all around in a scene that seems straight out of Little House on the Prairie – not too strange a notion since the long-running series was in its sixth of nine seasons at that time.

Although Bud’s the hero, his tantrums early on (throwing his hamburger at the waitress because it’s too rare) are genuinely despicable, even more so than the bank robber parolee who gets a job at Gilley’s, courts Sissy and lives in a trailer in back. Said parolee has to really, really misbehave by hitting Sissy hard enough to mess up her face and by robbing the old lady/Gilley’s employee of the rodeo’s earnings at Gilley’s to get the louder boo’s and hisses toward the end.

Fortunately, Hollywood steps in with a subtle script to make everything right as the movie moves into its crescendo. Bud sees Sissy’s bruised face and hunts down Parolee Guy at the nightclub to avenge Sissy’s injuries.

He attacks him, causing Parolee Guy’s jacket (where he’s stuffed the money he just robbed) to come open, revealing his bad deeds, and all the rest of the cowboys jump on him.

Now, Sissy realizes that Bud really loves her and they ride off together into the sunset. Oops, no, wrong movie. They turn down friends’ offers to buy them beers and head off together to the house trailer, departing inexplicably from reality in the final scene.

After all, everyone knows the real Bud and the real Sissy in real life would stay at the juke joint. No cowboy, even an Urban Cowboy, would ever turn down a free beer. 

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John Travolta in "Urban Cowboy" Courtesy photo
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A familiar sign
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Mickey Gilley, founder of Gilley's Club
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Memorabilia from Gilly's
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