Filmmaker Brenda Mitchell discusses Texas's legendary Broken Spoke dance hall, its longtime owners and a changing Austin. The documentary, Honky Tonk Heaven, airs on WORLD Channel Sunday April 29, at 9 PM ET and on both UNC-TV and SCETV on Monday, May 21, at 9 PM.
What inspired you to make this film?
Growing up in small town Texas, dance halls were simply a part of my social fabric. As a teenager, going to a dance hall is what my friends and I did on a Saturday night. I lived in Austin in the early 1970s and went to the Broken Spoke for the first time then. But it was moving back to Austin in the early ‘90s that cemented my love of the Spoke. Like anyone else who steps foot into this legendary honky tonk, I recognized its huge Texas appeal with locals, the young and old and foreigners alike. Here you found cowboy hats and boots, live country music and two-stepping at its best, with the beloved owner James White shaking hands with his customers and his wife, Annetta, serving up chicken fried steaks. Yet Austin was transforming into a rapidly urbanizing city with glitzy buildings and skyrocketing rents. Because I had witnessed the destruction of other iconic institutions, like Armadillo World Headquarters, Liberty Lunch and Las Manitas, I feared for the Spoke’s survival against the onslaught of this transitioning Austin landscape. Once I saw construction beginning for an apartment complex swallowing up the Broken Spoke on either side, I knew it was time to jump in and tell the Spoke story.
What makes this a Southern story?
Our central character, James White, who is the heart and soul of the Broken Spoke, personifies the South. He is a kind, well-mannered, hard-working man who shows true grit through his commitment to keeping his dance hall going and to being an ambassador for country music. And his hospitality! As musician Alvin Crow says in the film, “James treats the door like a preacher would treat his church. He’s gonna shake your hand, he’s gonna look you in the eye and tell you he’s glad you’re here and he means it.” Mr. White is also a master storyteller, navigating us through years of colorful nights at the Spoke. And his Spoke, that "red, rustic old building” may not be a classic historic jewel, but it personifies all things southern…come on in and stay awhile!
What were the challenges and blessings in making this movie?
The blessings far outweighed the challenges of making this film. Because the Whites were on board and gave us carte blanche, we were incredibly lucky. And because the musicians were so devoted to James White and the Spoke, they were all on board to be interviewed and filmed while performing. The biggest challenge was in editing, as there were some longtime Spoke musicians we had to cut, who gave beautiful, heartfelt interviews.
How did the story change you?
It made me even more appreciative of a dying breed of folks, like the White family. And the realization that, in this digital age of looking down at a screen, how rare and profoundly important places like the Broken Spoke are. In this old honky tonk, one must look a person in the eye and accept a dance invitation or not, then hold hands and two-step to live country music. Being at the Spoke is a raw a human experience and our story makes me more aware of that than ever.
What do you hope will happen after people see this story?
I hope they come to the Broken Spoke. I hope they pledge with the White family, the musicians and Spoke fans everywhere that “the last of true Texas dance halls” needs to live on for future generations to enjoy.