Remembering Gary Austin
October 18, 1941 – April 1, 2017
By Courtney Sudbrink, Editor
Photos, Nelson Blanton
Gary Austin was the Founder of The Groundling Theatre in Los Angeles. He was instrumental in the development of Improvisational Theatre. He taught Oscar and Tony Award winning actors. In 2014 he released his debut Album, The Traveler, which can be found at garyaustinmusic.com.He wrote a column for TJ Magazine called “Austin’s Legends.”
Even though Austin was 40 some years older than me, I never noticed. Most people I imagine called him Gary, but I always called him Austin. He was my buddy. Our bond was special and our friendship is something that will be with me forever. In 2009, I moved out to Los Angeles to do, not improv, not comedy, but as Austin called it, ‘Improvisational Theatre,’at Groundlings. I wasn’t an actor, but a writer. I wanted to do something that took me out of my comfort zone. At the time, I would’t have thought I’d be friends with the guy who started the Groundlings, but life has strange ways of bringing people together.
I first met Austin under a weird circumstance. He was in the hospital. I had been in communication with him through email, and he asked me to meet him at the hospital when he was undergoing a stem cell transplant in 2010. I thought it was odd for someone to want to meet someone for the first time in a hospital, but that was Austin. When I first went to visit, Austin would ask me questions. We got to know each other. Then I mentioned Townes Van Zandt. From there, we had an immediate bond, because if you listened to Townes Van Zandt, you were a certain kind of person. I visited Austin nearly every day when he was in the hospital. We talked about improvisation, but mostly music. That was our thing.
When Austin got out of the hospital, he and his wife, Wenndy, were there for me. Living in LA at that time, I felt like no one got me. Until I met Austin. Meeting someone who liked the same music as me, made me feel like I was talking to someone who understood me. Austin had told me other than his friend (and now mine), Matt Cartsonis, he hadn’t met anyone who liked Townes Van Zandt or Merle Haggard and all those guys I now write about. But back then, I was going through a difficult time. I was depressed, lonely and drinking too much. When I needed someone, Austin was there immediately. I called him up and said I wasn’t doing well. He drove down Laurel Canyon in the dark, to pick me up at my apartment in West Hollywood. If he hadn’t, I’m not sure what would have happened.
Our first adventure together was buying groceries at Ralphs. Going to a grocery store with Austin of course, wasn’t ordinary. Somehow, he managed to get into a fight with some guy, possibly over a shopping cart. Austin of course, went into a Church character and called the guy a “Born Again.” I thought “What in the world is this 68 year old man who just got out of the hospital doing picking a fight with someone twice his size?” I stood there not knowing what to do. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to spring into action, because Austin was acting like a tough cowboy about to give the guy a beat down. At one point “Do you want to take this outside?” was asked. The man was clearly confused, not sure how to react to a frail man and a girl dressed up as a cowboy. But of course, that was Austin. As far as he was concerned, he wasn’t any less a badass outlaw a couple weeks out of the hospital, than his idol Kris Kristofferson. And that’s how I saw him too. And even though I was a girl from New York, I thought I was a Texas outlaw all the same. And that pretty much was the basis of our odd, special friendship.
Austin and I had a habit of acting like silly kids. I lived with him and Wenndy for quite a while. They took care of me when I needed it. One day, Austin decided to get rid of his clothes from the 80s and 90s. He thought I was the perfect person to give them to. As we went through his closet, we got so excited seeing the ridiculous, Country Western pimp clothes. I’m pretty sure Wenndy thought we were nuts. Here I was with a 68 year old man, trying on outfits, getting fashion advice. He had me dressed up in suits, old west shirts, vests, 80s wrangler jeans and even a members only jacket. In retrospect, I looked absurd. But at the time, neither of us realized it. At one point, Austin and I discovered he had multiples of the same green, puffy old west shirts, and we got so excited, we put on the shirts and said “Woah, we look like twins.” Looking in the mirror, we didn’t even notice we were so different. When I discovered a Merle Haggard shirt from the 90s sitting in his closet, I said “Oh my god, look at this! Austin, you need to wear this.” The Hag was Austin’s favorite singer. Guy Clark was his favorite songwriter and the epitome of cool in his eyes. Kristofferson was his kindred spirit.
When I lived with Austin, we went everywhere together. And even when I moved back to my apartment, we still hung out nearly every day for about a year and a half. We were constantly running errands, which with Austin, was always an adventure. I couldn’t understand how, every day, he needed to run basically the same errands. Our usual stops were Whole Foods and Trader Joes. We were both vegetarians. Vegetarian outlaws. Only in LA. Our favorite food was Amy’s Vegan Texas Burgers. Even now, when I get them, it reminds me of Austin. We were also addicted to the peanut butter carob chip cookies from Whole Foods, which we would have with a glass of oat milk.
For the most part, I drove. For awhile, Austin’s truck didn’t work. He hated my Mustang, because it was so low to the ground. He said he felt like a “shrunken old lady” and could barely see over the dashboard. Every time he got in the car, he said “I hate this car.”
When Austin was back driving, we’d ride around in the beat up, faded red Ford pickup. Sometimes he would drive me around, telling me stories, showing me places where he lived. Every time he stopped at a light to make a left, he’d get so annoyed if the car in front didn’t pull into the intersection to let the car behind them get through the light. One time, he laid on the horn of his truck, drove an inch behind the car in front of us and screamed “Pull up! Pull up.” And then, the people chased us down the street, screaming at us. Once again I thought “Oh no, now what?” But Austin wasn’t afraid. And I was starting to believe I was as much of a badass. At one point, the people stopped following us. Frankly, I don’t think they saw two intimidating outlaws, I think when they saw it was an old man and a girl in the truck, they backed off.
Driving around all the time, I’d put on music for him. Newer artists that played authentic Country. His favorite was Justin Townes Earle. He called him “that guy,” and he was all we listened to for a few weeks. Even when a JTE album came out years later, he emailed me and said “I read your review of that guy. I’m buying the album.”
In February 2011, Justin Townes Earle played a show at the Autry Museum and we were there. Before the show, I was with Austin and his friend from Seattle, George Wertz. I told Austin there was someone coming to the show, who I needed his opinion on, because, as I said “I may or may not be dating him.” That happened to be my first date with Mark, who is now my husband. We met when I made a tribute video for Austin the week before, where I made sure to sport all of the outfits I’d been given. If it wasn’t for Austin, I’d never have met Mark. The Justin Townes Earle show of course, was eventful.
The venue was standing only. No one had a seat. But somehow we managed to get one for Austin. He sat right at the side of the stage. Back then, he wasn’t long out of the hospital and he’d get tired. At one point, Austin nodded off. When I mentioned it to him, he said “Oh, well I’m sure that guy, if he saw me, just thought I was really into the music.” About a half hour into the set, Austin thought his wedding ring fell off. Mark and I then spent about 20 minutes searching through garbage cans trying to find it. Only to return to Austin, who was drinking a beer in his chair, enjoying the show. He’d found his ring, which was in his bag the entire time.
There was never a dull moment with Austin. Even getting coffee proved eventful. One night, we were in West LA and went into a Coffee Bean that had glass doors and glass windows that went to the floor. Austin walked straight into the glass like a bird, nearly broke his glasses. He looked over at me… “Don’t tell Wenndy.” I shouldn’t have been laughing, I mean, he really seemed to be shook up. But when he went to the counter to complain about the dangers of glass windows, asking for numbers to call someone to report it, I felt like I was in The Out of Towners. And of course as soon as we got back to the house, I told Wenndy.
One of my favorite memories is the first time I discovered Waylon Jennings. It was Austin who actually got me him. One night we sat at his house and he played me Waylon’s last show, “Never Say Die.” At that point, Waylon wasn’t able to stand, so he played sitting in a chair. Discovering Waylon Jennings for the first time, was one of the more exciting moments in my life. It was the first time I heard, as I call it, the Waylon Jennings “pimp groove.” Austin loved Waylon’s version of “Goin’ Down Rockin.” He thought Waylon singing “If I can’t go down, rockin’, ain’t gonna go down at all” at his last show was badass. And it was.
I spent a lot of time in Austin’s office when I was over at his house. His office was his space to listen to music. Sometimes I’d pick up his black Gibson guitar and play Merle Haggard songs, trying to sing like The Hag. Sometimes I’d play Austin’s songs. But mostly, we’d sit there listening to music. He was the one who introduced me to Guy Clark’s music. If it wasn’t for Austin, I would have missed out on the opportunity to get to know the music of one of my favorite artists. And I certainly wouldn’t have gotten to interview Guy. When we did Guy Clark week at TJ in 2011, I filmed Austin doing a version of “Stuff That Works” for our video cover tribute, Don’t Let The Sunshine Fool Ya.
Gary Austin, Matt Cartsonis and Craig Eastman playing “Stuff That Works,” written by Guy Clark
Most of the times when Austin would sit in his office, I’d put on his cowboy hats, because I thought I was a real Texas outlaw. Then there was the time when we came up with the game, “Wenndy, Guess Who I Am” to amuse ourselves. The game consisted of me putting on ridiculous costumes. Then I’d run out into the living room to see if Wenndy could guess who I was. I put on the black cowboy hat with a band around it and some purple tinted aviators. She guessed I was Waylon Jennings.
In all the time I spent with Austin, we’d talk about our lives. One of my favorite stories he told me, was from when he was six years old, living in Corpus Christi. At the time, his heroes were Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers. In an effort to impress his neighbor Cookie, Austin tied a jump rope to his plastic guitar, ran it into his mother’s overnight bag and serenaded her with “Back In The Saddle Again.” When Cookie asked Gary why the rope was tied to the guitar running into the bag, he said, “That’s not an overnight bag. That’s my loud speaker.” That was pretty much the same Austin I knew.
The side of Austin I knew, wasn’t so much the Improvisational Guru side, but it was the Texas Country singer side of him. I knew him as an acting genius that I respected of course, and I took classes from him, but the side of Austin I saw, was a caring friend that I had fun with and who was one of the few people in the world that understood me. As I came into my own right as a music journalist, interviewing a lot of the people we admired, Austin treated me as a peer. When I first started TJ, Austin had his own column, “Austin’s Legends,” where he’d write about people like Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson and how they related to his life.
Coming from the Gulf Coast of Texas, Austin felt a kinship with Kristofferson. He was the inspiration for Austin becoming a songwriter. For years, Austin wrote songs, with the dream of one day making them into an album. The songs, he told me, were his “heart.” Austin started writing songs in the late 60s. In the 1980s, during the “Urban Cowboy fad,” he even had a radio hit on an L.A. station with “Freeway Chicken,” a comedic song that tells the story of a chicken that blocked the Hollywood freeway. When it was time to get the album together, Matt Cartsonis re-recorded the track live at the Groundling Theatre for Austin’s album, “The Traveler.”
Most of Austin’s songs have a wit to them, in the vein of Terry Allen or John Prine. The Traveler captured both the person Gary Austin and the performer. I was really happy to help get the design of the album together. My friend, photographer, Nelson Blanton, took pictures of Austin the way I knew him. As a Country singer. Those photos can be seen throughout this article.
One of the more difficult parts about moving back to Buffalo three years ago, was realizing I wouldn’t be able to hang out with Austin. We kept in contact. We’d email each other about music, or the fact that we missed spending time together. Three years later, with a heavy heart, and tears, I realize I won’t get the opportunity to hang out with my buddy again.
Of course Austin being Austin, there were specific instructions given to me about seven years ago as we were sitting in a grocery store parking lot. He told me that if he passed, I should write about him “like the guy who wrote the Del Close book.” I’m pretty sure Austin told me that Del Close was crazy and that’s what the book was about. At this point, the only thing I can think he meant, was to write about my experiences hanging out with him. These are the ways I remember him, the situations we got into that make me laugh. Whenever we hung out, we always laughed.
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