an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon is an Austin institution drawing people from all over the world for Chicken Shit Bingo, cheap beer, friendly atmosphere, and a taste of Texas culture. Ginny’s retains the sense of an old-fashioned neighborhood watering-hole amid glittering new bars and restaurants. The building is among the specters of an era rapidly disappearing on Burnet Road to high-rise condos, new eateries, and chain establishments. Every Sunday Ginny’s opens her doors (and parking lot) to Chicken Shit Bingo, a bar game that has become local legend. At 4 p.m. people arrive with lawn chairs in tow to set up among the rest of the patrons for cheap Lone Star beer and the opportunity to win $200. The game is simple; people buy a numbered ticket and wait enthusiastically for one of Ginny’s birds to relieve themselves on a matching grid square. However, the game could come to an end. As with all old buildings in an area undergoing gentrification Ginny’s is at risk of being swept up in the urban renewal that effects much of Austin; the fastest growing city in the U.S. Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon does not produce money at break-neck pace like corporate business; instead Ginny’s reflects the traditionally funky culture of Austin, affording it critical acclaim among those who celebrate Austin’s heritage and drawing people world-wide for Chicken Shit Bingo and live music
Finding Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon means keeping your eyes peeled. Among the newer and larger building cropping on Burnet Road, Ginny’s is a microcosm of pre-modern buildings. The building’s steeple and a sign for a Futon Store are your most recognizable landmarks, but if you are coming on Sunday for Chicken Shit Bingo you may well spot the gathered people. When I went there, I parked in the neighborhood behind Ginny’s, and arrived promptly at 4 pm to find an already full bar and a throng of people outside. Everyone appeared to be smiling, chatting, and drinking cheap beer from plastic cups. The scene provided a varied mosaic of people as well. Among the patrons were older and younger groups, hipsters, cowboys, bikers, and about every style of dress that a searing Texas afternoon would allow. As I arrived I could hear the band setting up, and took a spot of shade to set up while they tested the mics with, “the chicken shits, the chiIICKen shits.”
Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon occupies a building that is 101 years old. It has served as a restaurant, gas station, and bar over its long history. Ginny Kalmbach was the owner of the bar for over 30 years, and retired November 2013. She began as a bartender in the 1981, but took over in 1993. And While Chicken Shit Bingo is a venerable Austin institution, it has only been around for 12 years. It has run from 4-8 p.m. every Sunday almost without exception. The idea came from Don Kolmback, Ginny’s late husband, who called Dale Watson, a local music legend, with the idea to use a chicken in a game at the bar. Dale played regularly at Ginny’s, and played for the first Chicken Shit Bingo. Soon word spread that Ginny’s was doing something novel. Ginny herself was apprehensive at first stating, “Who wants a chicken at the bar?” Since the early 2000s Chicken Shit Bingo and Dale Watson have been mainstays for the divey music bar. There is live music every day except Mondays, and never a cover charge. There are three current owners, Terry and David Gaona and Dale Watson. Ginny retired on November 3rd 2013, but is always welcome as the “Chicken Wrangler.”
The building itself is fairly long windowless stocky structure with rock siding and a steeple out front. There were a few cars parked towards the front, but the back lot had been cordoned off for people to set up folding chairs and tables. Shade was at a premium on the hot black asphalt. Old rusted pick-ups, gas signs, and license plates add to the sense of this being a place that originated in an older time. I was gazing across the menagerie of men, women, and dogs when I notice the chicken’s coop. My first impression was that the coop was really quite nice. It looked to be about 5’ by 7’ with two birds strutting proudly inside; likely aware that they are the celebrities of the day. I could hear the business of Burnet Road in the background, but just barely over the din of people and music. Looking toward the street I watched as more and more people appear carrying their folding chairs almost like as if they hadn’t driven to get here. It was as if the neighborhood itself was coming out of their homes to walk down to Ginny’s for cheap beer, good company, and live music. I realized I was getting a few bizarre looks as I scribbled my notes, so I decide a beer might help me to seem less like an outsider, maybe a free chili dog too.
I made my way inside where it was crowded, and people were politely waiting to pass through the narrow space. At the bar there were a few options; Lone Star in a cup, in a bottle, wine, or champaign. I decided on a plastic cup of cheap Texas beer. There was a dark honkey-tonk atmosphere inside with some of the usual older bar decor. The interior had a pool table that was currently being used for the grid cage needed for Chicken Shit Bingo. The cage itself was a wooden and chicken wire construction with a grid of numbers randomly squared off beneath it. The band played their hits to a small group of enthusiastic dancers just feet from the instruments. It was a loud southern vibe that displayed Texas pride, Lone Star loyalty, and small bar aesthetics.
The hustle of Chicken Shit Bingo and the cramped nature of the interior of the bar lent to enjoying the band, getting a drink, or getting back outside. On my way out, I took a quick survey, and it looked like well over 100 people, mostly white, with a smattering of Hispanics, and just two black patrons. The age groups varied from kids to the very elderly. It seemed like many groups were couples or groups of couples that matched men to women in pairs. Lone Star beer was the obvious drink of choice, although I did see one discerning gentleman with a plastic cup of red wine.
The overall atmosphere was quite welcoming. I was apprehensive about approaching people, but the combination of open-air venue, beer, and live music lent to an aire of communal interaction that made approaching people quite easy. I began with an unassuming couple that was there for the first time. They had a moment’s hesitation talking to me until I explained what I was doing, and then they were quite forthcoming. This trend happened with most of my interviews. I interviewed a group of bikers next, and after some initial ragging over my polo and khaki shorts were quite open to talking about Chicken Shit Bingo. People had various answers for why they were there, but themes recurred among the answers. The first being Ginny herself, as the matriarch of Chicken Shit Bingo and the bar she made it into a “family event.” Her years of running the bar with an inviting atmosphere, no cover, and great music had made her into one of the legends of Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon. Cold cheap beer also played into the attractiveness, along with the novelty of Chicken Shit Bingo and recent acclaim on TV and print publications. However, when I asked what they thought of the Ginny’s now that they had experienced it I got answers like, “good ambiance,” “Relaxed vibe,” and “family feel.” Everyone seemed to agree that the friendly management and clientele created a welcoming setting for a crowd of all ages. One of the bikers remarked that, “this was probably the first time [he] saw this diverse a group without a fight.”
When I began to circulate the bartender told me I should talk to Terry – “She runs this place.” Terry, her husband, and Dale Watson are the current owners and probably make up the foremost names behind Ginny herself. Dale Watson is a country legend that has been a part of Ginny’s line up for well over a decade. Likewise Terry and her husband have been part of the bar for a long time. What I noticed about each of these people immediately was the open and inviting way they interact with people. Terry all but dropped her duties to talk to me in the hot sunshine. Patrons that knew these people walked up and greeted them like old friends, and people that did not them were talked to like a member of a country family. “Sweetie” and “hun” were common vernacular. After my second meeting with a manager I stuck out my hand and she said, “Nope, we’ve met twice now. We hug!” Chicken Shit Bingo really reflected to me how people still seek out neighborhood style community events that they can identify with as Austin residents and share in a charming social setting. My initial feelings about Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon were of a friendly, open, space that a diverse number of people visited in part for the novelty of Chicken Shit Bingo, but also for the welcoming sense of community and neighborhood.
As a business, Ginny’s appears to fashion itself in a way to make the most of human interaction, as opposed to many modern flashy businesses. It reflects the cultural associations of being “deep in the heart of Texas,” as their website proclaims, to foster an atmosphere more akin to a block party than a business. This unique Texas experience draws diverse groups to a site to where they can create relationships based on the cultural atmosphere of Chicken Shit Bingo and amazing live music. The century of history embedded in Ginny’s architecture emphasizes a cultural significant to its patrons that you won’t find at the Olive Garden down the road. However, Ginny’s is a small bar maintaining a foothold in an area undergoing gentrification at a rapid rate. The economic forces of Austin are erecting condos and new buildings along Burnet Road at a rapid pace, decreasing the historic feel that buildings like Ginny’s provides. It is a very real threat to a business that prides itself on $2 beer and no covers. One theory holds that in a capitalist society “individual enterprises can survive only by making profit, but in an economy ruled by competition…survival requires the accumulation of larger and larger quantities of capital” (Smith, 143). Some patrons worry that Ginny’s cannot keep pace with expansion of businesses and property values on Burnet Road. There have been changes to Ginny’s recently that reflect how the new management has reacted to these pressures and used Chicken Shit Bingo’s acclaim to stake their claim to the neighborhood and use social influence to persevere.
When taken in the context of how Austin is changing and growing in an increasingly globalized society, small places like Ginny’s tell historical and cultural stories that can be destroyed and overwritten by commercially driven gentrification. What became apparent at Chicken Shit Bingo is that gentrification and efforts to combat it are reflected in the dialogue among the owners and patrons. A significant split in opinion was shown between those who manage Ginny’s and those ‘regulars’ who are at most Chicken Shit Bingos. A manager and a long time bartender believes that Burnet Road and the surrounding neighborhood was part what made Ginny’s great, and the businesses there had a “shared stewardship” of that community. When pressed about the new condos and recently built chain restaurants they spoke of the neighborhood as growing and changing and the bartender said, “every generation changes, its unstoppable.” While there were clearly positive opinions for expansion on Burnet Road from management, other ‘regulars’ who had been coming to Chicken Shit Bingo for years were more apprehensive. I spoke to one patron who told me how a woman on her balcony in the new condos across the street sat out all Sunday to glare at the Bingoers and loud music, but she asserted, “hey, we were here first.” Anxiety about the loss of patrons for Ginny’s if flashy modern establishments kept going up came to the forefront of conversation with one woman saying the, “quaintness is vanishing on Burnet.” The patrons who appreciate Chicken Shit Bingo notice the old structures being demolished in favor of commercialized space and fear for the bar’s ability to compete. Indeed even the bar’s owner, despite her upbeat attitude occasionally belied her confidence, stating “oh, we will be open as long as we can manage.”
What Chicken Shit Bingo creates is a uniquely Austin cultural experience that people seek out today. Ginny’s brings in hundreds of patrons from across Texas and the globe. The owners are proud of the status that Chicken Shit Bingo has garnered stating, “We are a community bar that extends past the neighborhood. We have people come from all over the US, and different countries like Holland, Australia, and New York.” It also provides a unique outlet for Austinites who increasingly “use their own city as if tourists, aggressively pursuing urban consumption opportunities” (Lloyd, 43). This was reflected in many of the “hipsters” and “first-timers” I spoke to. A group of girls claimed they had “heard about this Chicken Shit Bingo thing off the touristy trail.” Others said it was “quintessential Austin thing,” or a “freak show with good music.” An African American biker I spoke to said it had a “good ambiance,” and liked that there were “no cliques, just people mixing and having fun.” Chicken Shit Bingo is a cultural icon outside the mass attractions of Austin providing incentive for locals to seek it out. However, as it gains fame people from around the world are seeking the cultural experiences it provides as well. This acclaim gives it leverage against strictly economic based gentrification. An iconic “Keep Austin Weird” site, people come to Ginny’s to experience local music and mingle with people from all over as they wait hopefully for a chicken to do his business. As a paragon of Austin culture and Texas pride, the bar is adapting to survive amid the pressures of global influence. With luck, Chicken Shit Bingo will be an Austin mainstay and Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon will stand for another century.
Lloyd, Richard. “Chapter 3 The Celebrity Neighborhood.” Ethnography and the City: Readings on Doing Urban Fieldwork. By Richard E. Ocejo. New York: Routledge, 2013. N. pag. Print.
Smith, Neil. “Gentrification and Uneven Development.” Economic Geography, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Apr., 1982), pp. 139-155
Eric Dickey is a native Texan, veteran, and UT Austin alumni with a B.A. in International Relations and Global Studies. He has a background as a Korean linguist and in military intelligence.