How Shannon Sedwick Built a Comedy Conglomerate by Keeping Austin Weird
Written by Shelley Seale
Photography provided by Esther's Follies
Shannon Sedwick was perhaps destined to be in show business. Her parents were both involved in theater and were living in Los Angeles pursuing their dreams when Sedwick was born.
“My dad wanted to become a singing cowboy movie star and didn't quite make it,” Sedwick says. “As I was growing up, I tagged along to watch shows they were in and even performed with my mother in ‘The Chalk Garden.’ I also took every acting class at Casa Mañana [theater and school in Fort Worth] and learned the words to every stage musical from the ‘50s and ‘60s.”
The Early Days
When it came time for college, the choice was easy for budding performer Sedwick — she enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin with the goal of becoming a professional actor. There she became involved with the Curtain Club, an extracurricular drama society, and also met her husband, Michael Shelton.
Sedwick launched her first enterprise in 1970, in partnership with Shelton. “We started a film series called ‘The Museum of Light,’ showing experimental short films on campus and inviting filmmakers to come speak about their work. It was our first business venture, and we enjoyed it!”
That experience sparked an entrepreneurial fire in Sedwick that has never been extinguished. College wasn’t holding interest for either her or Shelton, so when a realtor friend showed them an old outdoor space in the warehouse district, the couple decided, somewhat spontaneously, to become restaurateurs. They joined with another theater friend, Emil Vogely, who was also a chef, and opened a New Orleans-style restaurant and live music club. Austin’s iconic, beloved — and sadly, now gone — Liberty Lunch was born.
If you ask any long-time Austinite about the “old days,” or what they remember and miss the most around town, chances are you’ll hear the name Liberty Lunch over and over. It opened in 1975, hitting its stride in the ‘80s and ‘90s as a storied music venue and true dive bar. The live music acts performed in the backyard, and Sedwick and Shelton added entertainment with performance art pieces in between bands. It was one of those places that epitomized the funky Austin vibe and inspired our slogan of “Keep Austin Weird.”
“Liberty Lunch was reviewed by Texas Monthly, and we had lines around the block,” Sedwick recalls. “People were eating their gumbo with bowls balanced on their laps on the street in front of the restaurant.”
Building an Empire
The business was only the first in a long string of restaurants, clubs, and performance venues that Sedwick and Shelton launched in the decades since. The entrepreneurs’ second venture was Phillies’ Diner, where Sedwick recalls delivering sandwiches to customers by bicycle.
Then came the Buffalo Grille, a jazz club and restaurant on West Sixth Street. “I cooked by day, and sang in a trio by night, and fell in love with Sam Shepard when he came to our Sunday Brunch jazz jam with his bongos,” Sedwick reminisces.
Next was the Tavern, a century-old building at the corner of 12th and Lamar that had recently been shuttered by the state comptroller. Shelton completely renovated the historic building and, along with a partner, he and Sedwick brought the restaurant-bar back to life. Unfortunately, a few years later they had a falling-out with the partner, who bought out their interest in the establishment. (The Tavern came back full-circle, however, when Sedwick and Shelton bought it again in 2018.)
Their next business venture is the one that Sedwick calls “the best place by far” — Esther’s Follies. It’s the one that has kept audiences who visit and live in Austin laughing for more than 40 years. The live comedy revue — part Saturday Night Live with a Texas twist, part modern-day vaudeville, and part Harry Houdini — is like nothing else on the national comedy scene. From political skewering to parody sketches to confounding magic acts, Esther’s Follies got its start in an old, narrow bar on Sixth Street that Sedwick and Shelton leased in 1977.
On April Fools’ Day of that year, the couple threw a party in the space that turned into an improvisational free-for-all for comics, dancers, musicians, mimes and singers. The evening ended with a dance around a lawn sprinkler, in a campy tribute to legendary aquatic-choreographer Esther Williams.
“We opened Esther’s on a song, got a beer and wine license, and built a stage in the windows,” Sedwick says. “It became an underground hit, even with a grimy entrance through the alley. It was free at first, with us passing the hat, but with a cast of 30-plus people, no one was making any money. Michael and I took the reins of the show, as well as the space, and trimmed the cast down and started a small ticket fee that grew as the shows got better.”
Growth and Evolution
The husband-and-wife partnership had a simple business plan: Just stay open. They played to each of their personal strengths in the business. Shelton was the one behind the scenes, handling the bookkeeping, building the stage and sets, and making sure the bar and front of house were running smoothly. Sedwick was the performer and the face of Esther’s Follies to the customers.
“I was the first person people talked to, and the last person to shake their hands as they left, with a personal touch,” she says. “The first few years were exhilarating, even if we were living in the dressing room for most of it and keeping our costs to a minimum. We concentrated on just making sure our show was good and listened to our audiences as to what worked.”
By the end of the first year, they knew they had something special happening — and a venture they could keep going. “We knew we had arrived as a real business, and the format was perfect: political satire, musical numbers, colorful character monologues, and vaudeville acts, like juggling and magic. We made sure it was a fast-paced show, with very short bits, in the style of a vaudeville show list.”
There were still many challenges to overcome. The first theater was destroyed in a fire caused by a cigarette. But fortunately, Sedwick and Shelton had just rented the Ritz Theater across the street, with the intention of starting a punk rock club. With the Esther’s Follies space gone, they simply packed up the costumes and moved into the Ritz — without even missing a show.
The financials of making enough money with low ticket prices and a large cast has always been a challenge, but the creative aspect of the business poses its own worries. “Finding writers is the biggest challenge of all — as you burn out after a while and need constant refreshing of your ideas and lots of collaboration with your peers,” Sedwick says.
Though the Ritz served its purpose as an emergency space for the show, it wasn’t ideal. Finally, the partners found their current theater at 525 E. Sixth St., where they have been ever since. They also strengthened their business model by expanding into catering and private events, as well as opening spin-off locations such as the Velveeta Room (a stand-up comedy club) and Patsy’s Cafe (a rustic bar and grill with nightly live music).
“The convention center grew up behind us, and we utilized our excellent location to cater to our neighbors,” Sedwick says. “Even though our shows have always been on weekends, we now were doing two shows Friday and Saturday nights and one show Thursday, as well as catered buyout shows Sunday through Wednesday nights when a group would rent out the theater and show. We started a party service called the ‘Follies To Go’ that took our smaller units out to hotels and convention center rooms in Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas. In short, we became a comedy conglomerate.”
As the decades progressed and Esther’s Follies moved into the internet age, a new set of obstacles cropped up. “Creative challenges lie in just keeping the funny alive in a world that is now totally connected by social media and late-night comedy, where everyone can see a rehash of the day's news instantaneously and we have to compete with our own funny take on the subjects at hand,” Sedwick says. “In the past, we expected to write a joke, and the audience would slowly get the humor as they learned over a period of a few days, or the weekend. Now, people know instantly via Twitter and Instagram.”
She also finds that political satire, a strong aspect of the show, has changed recently. Throughout the administrations of Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama, Sedwick says audiences on both sides of politics were ready to laugh at themselves.
“Not so much these days, as Trump's base is notoriously not happy with being made fun of,” she says. “These days, we expect to have at least four to six people walk out of a show when we make fun of their president. We have always tried to be equal opportunity bashers on both sides of the aisle, but it's been easier to make fun of Republicans lately, at least of Trump, as he continues to give us material almost daily, so we have to write and rewrite.”
40 Years and Counting
Sedwick says audience connection is what has kept Esther’s Follies and the ancillary businesses going for as long as they have. “We are lucky to be in Austin, which is a very open city, where Republicans and Democrats can exist together, hippies and cowboys, conservatives and liberals, all able to laugh at each other's foibles and not be upset by the laughter,” Sedwick says. “The political satire keeps the show fresh every week, and our classic comedy bits revolve in every month or so, so people can come back every three to six months, and see new material for them. It's always the personal relationship with the audience that keeps it fresh for us and makes it memorable for the people who come back again and again.”
Audience enjoyment is also what keeps Sedwick going: “Hearing that laugh come from every person in your audience, rolling over you as you put it out for the first time, and it works! The person who walks past me at the end of the night and tells me that I made them happy, after they just lost their husband or got their cancer diagnosed — humor is great therapy, and making people happy is the greatest reward of all.”
She adds that doing what she does is also a great way to stay youthful and active. “I continue to do Esther's Follies because it is the best way to make a living and stay young, happy, and engaged in my community that I could ever imagine. When people say a heartfelt thank you for continuing to do Esther's, they recognize that need in all of us to laugh at ourselves and make light of the heaviness of the world. I am an optimist at heart, and I feel that our message at Esther's is to keep that sense of wonder in life broadcast to everyone who comes through our doors. Have fun! That is what life is all about.”
Shannon Sedwick's Advice for Budding Entrepreneurs
1) Believe in your ideas, and talk them over with people that have been successful in their fields — get feedback and help.
2) Money isn't the most important thing to success; take everything in increments, and grow steadily.
3) Don't fear failure. Let failure motivate you to learn and triumph over mistakes.
4) Help other people, mentor them, and give back to the community. I have grown from a small businessperson to a member of boards that help the community. I try to speak to groups about Esther's and to women in business, to give them the encouragement that they can do this too.