By Sean Claes
Thirty-five years ago Pat Molak was a stock broker that was looking to get out of that game. He went shopping for a dance hall. While in negotiations to buy one in San Antonio along Cibolo Creek a friend turned him onto a fixer-upper in a little berg just west of New Braunfels. The town was Gruene, Texas and the dance hall was Gruene Hall.
At that time, Gruene was not the destination town we all know and love and Gruene Hall was pretty much just a bar with a big storeroom. The big draw then was the 35¢ Falstaff. But Molak saw the potential and transformed the Hall, which is Texas’ oldest continuously operating dance hall, into a live music Mecca.
This month Gruene Hall celebrates 35 years of business under the Molak ownership and there is great reason to party. Legends like Little Richard, Ernest Tubb, Asleep At The Wheel, Willie Nelson, The Dixie Chicks, and Arlo Guthrie have graced the stage over the years. It’s also served as the launching pad for musicians like George Strait, Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett.
INsite Managing Editor Sean Claes caught up with Molak to talk about the legendary dance hall.
Sean Claes: Tell me about the first time you set foot in Gruene Hall.
Pat Molak: I grew up in San Antonio. I’d been coming to New Braunfels forever going to Camp Warnecke and all that stuff. But I’d never heard of Gruene or Gruene Hall. It was all new to me.
A buddy of mine told me there was a little bar in New Braunfels. I walked in and they were selling beer in the front and this back area was just used as a storeroom. All kinds of junk and chairs and stuff. But you had to go back there to go to the bathroom. I walked back to use the bathroom and I saw the potential.
Claes: What was Gruene like 35 years ago?
Molak: There were a couple of businesses. Across the street from Gruene Hall is where we have our offices today; there was a company that made saddle trees. The Grist Mill was just a ruin. It had burned and it was dilapidated. The whole town was dormant and kind of run down.
Claes: So you came in with the idea of making it a proper dance hall?
Molak: We took control in January or February of 1975. Cleaned out all the junk, got the flaps working. Got new electrical in here and started booking bands. The first band played somewhere around spring of 1975.
Claes: Who are some of the early bands that played?
Molak: Plum Nelly was a hot little band back then. Some great Austin musicians were in it. Ernie Gammage was in it, he’ still around. Back then, The Armadillo had just closed down but Soap Creek Saloon was still around. Bands like Greezy Wheels were still around. Then we had some local bands that were making the circuit. The Cofield Brothers Band. They were from Luling. The first big name we had was Ernest Tubb. He pulled right up in his bus and he was a perfect gentleman. Asleep at the Wheel was right after that.
Claes: How did George Strait get his start?
Molak: A friend of mine worked for a company here. He said ‘there’s a hot little band that played out company picnic called the Ace In The Hole Band.’ I tracked them down, gave them $150 and they came out here and played. That was probably the fall of 1975. He probably played for 6 years and he got bigger and bigger. George always had that great voice. He’d tried for a number of years, had gone to Nashville and he’d decided ‘I’m going to try one more time and then say “Uncle.”’ The last time really worked.
Claes: The cover of INsite this month is a kind of tribute to George Strait’s shooting the back cover of his first album at Gruene Hall. He’s had a special relationship with Gruene Hall over the years.
Molak: He’d been a regular here. Even after he hit it big he played a couple of times. Not anymore, he’s way too big. For his latest CD, Twang, last summer every photo on the inside of the album is taken at the hall. It was really cool having him back at the Hall. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.
Claes: What do you think it is that draws people to come?
Molak: It’s kind of an intimate joint. With the “dressing room” being the men’s bathroom and the crowd standing about a foot from the stage it’s been just a joint that’s got good karma.
Claes: Tell me about the Gospel Brunch Gruene Hall puts on the second Sunday of each month (this month’s is May 9).
Molak: We kind of stole the idea from The House of Blues in New Orleans. Since we have the Grist Mill Restaurant behind us, we decided to do it.
Buckner Fanning, he’s kind of our answer to Billy Graham, comes out and preaches every now and then (he’ll be at the September 2010 Gospel Brunch). We’ve got this great band from Austin to come down and play (The Gospel Silvertones) and local musician Bret Graham emcees the event. It’s a cool event.
One of my thoughts was like, what if I’m from Nebraska and I pull into Gruene, park and walk in and there’s an old bar with tablecloths on the tables, all the Grist Mill employees are all in period hats and there’s a black gospel band playing on stage. I’d probably think I was dreaming. It comes off pretty neat.
Claes: You’ve got a pretty good deal music-wise with New Braunfels radio station KNBT.
Molak: The owner is Matson Rainer. They've become the #1 Americana station in the nation. All of these artists love Matson and we love him because he plays all the music we have. It’s a real synergistic relationship.
Every year we raise about $50-70,000 for charity. We just write some big checks. I think between myself and Matson we’ve raise over a million dollars for various charities.
For this month’s Americana Music Jam (Sunday May 16), Matson has got some great acts. Robert Earl is coming. Cody Canada, Walt Wilkins, some great acts.
Molak: Gruene itself is on the National Register. That’s a big deal it’s not 100% restored, but using adaptive reuse we’re close. That’s one thing that makes Gruene so cool. 1/2 mile up there you’ve got the freeway and all the gas stations and chain restaurants but you can sit down in Gruene, have a nice cold beer and forget there’s a highway just up the road.
Claes: The Hall still looks like I imagine it looked 35 years ago.
Molak: It really is. You know people who open bars buy all of those old-time hand-painted signs to look a certain way. We had them. They were already here. Two-digit numbers. People will come and say “that’s my great-granddaddy’s garage up there.” It’s really cool
Claes: What are some of the things that are big memories from over the years?
Molak: It’s funny. There are classics. Some of the free shows over the years. Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and Hal Ketchum used to play on Sundays for free. We’d sit back and say, “these guys have a great voice how cool is this?” Next thing we know we try and book them and can’t afford ‘em.
Some of the old blues players Buddy Guy and Keb Mo were just classics. Strange voices are always a big deal.
Garth Brooks was one of those. We knew he was on his way up and he talked me into booking him. That voice, you could just tell. A year later he was going through arenas on a wire.
Albert Collins was probably one of my favorite performers. The whole joint was just rocking. It was just awesome. He just walked through the crowd. Next thing I know he’s standing in the middle of the street in front blocking traffic and blowing his horn.
Claes: If you had to choose just one?
Molak: The 25th Anniversary of Gruene Hall. Little Richard played. He backed his limo into the beer garden, climbed up on the piano and started playing “Good Golly Miss Molly.” That might be the moment that gave me the most chills. My little boy Jake was six. He’s 16 now. The whole family was here.
He had to go from the office across the street in a limo. We had a big ‘ol piano up on stage. He comes in, stands up on the deal and starts playing and I damn near died, it was so cool. He was hittin’ it too, not like some old guy on stage. We couldn’t find Jake and I was getting a little nervous, but there was a big group of people up front and he was just sitting there looking right up at Little Richard.
Claes: Jerry Jeff Walker plays Gruene Hall a few times a year still.
Molak: Jerry Jeff has been a mainstay. He’s been a great supporter forever. He cut that live album back in the 1980s that was a cool deal. He’s coming back doing a special show for our anniversary on May 13.
Claes: It seems there’s always a band playing at Gruene Hall.
Molak: We have music every night of the week and then on Saturday and Sunday afternoon we’ve got music during the day. It’s hard to go somewhere and see music every night. And most of it is free.
Claes: Who are some of the odder names that have played here?
Molak: Arlo Guthrie comes to mind. He is great. Not the typical name you’d think of when you think Gruene Hall though. Hootie and the Blowfish played here a few years ago. Just before Darius Rucker went out on his own.
Claes: So, Hootie and the Blowfish play Gruene Hall and Darius Rucker goes country?
Molak: (Laughs) Right. We converted him. Actually I think he was playing it before he got here.
Claes: This is the kind of place musicians like to hang out too.
Molak: The first time Raul Malo did his solo act, the whole joint was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. It was classic. He likes the joint so much that he’ll play back to back nights. I’ll come in during the day and he’ll be sitting in here jamming day-band or he’ll take over the mic or do a sound check. Those are just the weird deals that happen.
Claes: What are your thoughts of the new crop of singers coming up. See any that may elevate to the George Strait, Lyle Lovett or Garth Brooks level?
Molak: You know, it’s really a guessing game. It’s kind of like going to Hollywood. There are a lot of great looking people out there that never made it big. There’s a lot of luck. I think of Houston Marchman who’s been around for a few years, he’s good. Zack Walther has got a great voice. Cody Canada has got a nice deal, he’s doing some solo stuff. Stoney Larue is awesome and they’re big but not nationwide yet. Sometimes it’s hard to translate this Texas stuff nationwide.
One of the ones that probably has come the closest is Jack Ingram. First time he played here he opened for Merle Haggard. We love him here. He did some crossover and is being played on a few radio stations now. He came back last year. It’s really cool when you get someone like Jack where he can play for 3,000 people but he plays the hall anyways.
Claes: Who’s playing for the 35th Anniversary Month?
Molak: We purposely booked a lot of the old reliables. Gary P. Nunn started everything off on the first weekend. Jerry Jeff is coming for the Thursday the 13th. Joe Ely is coming. He’s great. The Fabulous Thunderbirds… thank God they don’t come to town too often me and Kim Wilson (singer) used to get in a lot of trouble. Asleep at the Wheel is coming. The month of May historically is our Anniversary month.
Claes: Gruene is a neat experience on a whole.
Molak: You know Gruene Hall is the heart of this town, but there’s a lot going on here. We’ve got the river 80 yards from us. We’ve got all these cool little shops and buildings. We don’t like freeways, but we’ve got a great one just a mile down the road.
There’s just more to do in Gruene. I love Key West and New Orleans. You go to a joint and have a couple of beers and catch some great love music. That’s what we hope Gruene is. It’s kind of a destination but it’s not too far out of the way.
Claes: Ever thought about putting air conditioning?
Molak: No way. Then all those other joints wouldn’t have anything to put in their ads. “Come on down here… live music and air conditioning.” No, you just couldn’t do it without ruining the place. You have to have the flaps.
As you know, it get’s hotter than blazes in here during the summertime. Billy Joe Shaver had a heart attack after playing at Gruene Hall. It is hot in here. I’ll give you that. You know what you’re getting into.
This is our May 2010 Cover Story. To download the PDF of the issue, click the cover below.