Gilley nightclub returns with mechanical bull, Dolly Parton lookalike contest
The original Gilley
Photo: Courtesy of the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce
Gina Spagnola never went to Gilley’s. But as president and CEO of the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce, she’s helping revive the Pasadena honky-tonk that inspired the 1980 hit movie “Urban Cowboy.”
For one night, anyway.
Filmed at Gilley’s and other local venues, Bud and Sissy’s love story still holds an important place in local mythology. The idea of using “Urban Cowboy” as the theme for the benefit party/benefit attached to the chamber’s annual meeting had already been around for several years. In fact, it was already on the books for 2022 when things took a turn: someone suggested Spagnola talk to Leon Beck, local music journalist and guardian of Gilley’s legacy.
And so the so-called “Gilley’s Pop-Up,” scheduled for Jan. 29 at the San Luis Resort’s Galveston Island Convention Center, was born.
Once Beck got involved, Spagnola says, she was able to tap into the tight-knit community of former Gilley regulars who appeared as themselves in the film, affectionately referring to themselves as “Gilleyrats” and organizing periodic “Urban Cowboy” meetings. Many of them will be present on Saturday, as will veteran Texas actor Barry Corbin, the film’s Uncle Bob. Beck also helped Spagnola achieve the leadership of Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee, and once the two country singers – fresh off their “Urban Cowboy Rides Again” tour – signed up, the event officially became the party of the 50th anniversary of Gilley.
“As Leon Beck said,” Spagnola recounts, “it’ll be the closest thing to a Saturday night at Gilley’s.”
To that end, the Spagnola team has gone to great lengths to recreate that vintage honky-tonk feel—all but the frequent blood on the men’s room floor, that is. Gilley’s chili and other delicacies will come straight from the club menu (again, thanks to Beck); the low wooden stage will be an exact replica. It will be the same for El Toro, the famous mechanical bull of the film. Signed by Mickey Gilley himself, this one will be for pictures only, but others will be available to ride.
Katy’s No Label Brewery is brewing a special batch of Gilley’s Beer, and presenting sponsor UVC Powersports has helped organize arcade games, punching bags and other vintage fun. Just like in the movie, there will also be a Dolly Parton look-alike contest and a dance contest that illustrates the effect the club has often had on people’s lives. Spagnola offers another special guest, choreographer Mary Hoedeman, as an example.
When: 6 p.m. January 29
Or: Galveston Island Convention Center at the San Luis Resort, 5600 Seawall Blvd., Galveston
Details: $150 and more; gilleyspopup.com or galvestonchamber.com
“She was going to Gilley’s, and I think someone came up to her and said, ‘God, you should start teaching dance classes in Houston; everyone wants to take two steps after ‘Urban Cowboy’,” she says. “She says, ’40 years later, I made a career out of it and became a world champion’.”
Another handy feature wasn’t actually in the movie but probably should have been: a chapel where couples can renew their vows or even get married, a tribute to the number of relationships that have been affected by the club. (For the best or for the worst). “A lot of people got married because of Gilley,” says Gilleyrat Dew Westbrook in CMT’s 2015 documentary about the club. “A lot of people got divorced because of Gilley.”
Spagnola says she expects around 1,600 people, not so many that people can’t social distance if they have to. (Scattered individual tickets may be available for $150 per person, but as of last week they were going fast.) About half of RSVPs come from Greater Houston, she said, and the other half from further afield; indeed, as far away as Canada and England. And most of them have great Gilley history.
“We have a couple who met at Gilley’s, got married and had their baby,” Spagnola says. After leaving the hospital, the man said to her, “Do you know where our first stop was with the baby?
“I said, ‘Oh my God, was that Gilley? “, Spagnola said. “He said, ‘Absolutely’.”
Spagnola’s husband once helped manage the boxers who sometimes fought at Gilley’s. She was fresh out of high school when she and her boyfriend traveled 30 miles from their small Arkansas hometown to Fort Smith to see “Urban Cowboy.” Now, over 40 years later, she’s happy that her organization is able to honor something that’s become so much more than just honky-tonk, no matter how large it ever was. “It really is a piece of history,” she said.
For the chamber, producing Gilley’s 50th birthday party is “something we’ll be so proud to say we helped make,” adds Spagnola. “Didn’t help to do – we did.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.