How do you say goodbye to a venue that's been at the heart of Austin's reputation as a music town for 36 years?
Singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett, the final act to tape a segment of "Austin City Limits" at Studio 6A, invited crew members onstage and then led a singalong of his "Closing Time," with its chorus of "unplug those people and send them home." The crowd swayed along, some wiping away tears.
Next month, television's longest-running music show will unplug from its studio on the University of Texas campus and begin moving into the Austin City Limits Live at Moody Theater studio/nightclub on West Second Street across from City Hall.
But Monday night, the focus was on celebrating the legacy of Studio 6A. Besides a studio audience of 320, about 500 people sat in Hogg Auditorium to watch a simulcast of the Lovett set. The appearance was the 12th for Lovett, tying him with Willie Nelson, who did the show's 1974 pilot, for the most on "ACL."
Lovett said he expects the show to maintain its charm in the new 2,750-capacity facility, which will be curtained off to seat 800 for "ACL" tapings. "This show has always been about the spirit, the soul and the will," Lovett said after soundcheck. "We could do it on the streets with the same people, and it would be the same."
Longtime "ACL" producer Terry Lickona said the final taping was "probably the most in-demand show we've ever done — even more than for Coldplay and Pearl Jam."
Lickona said he's had ticket requests from just about everyone he knows; former crew members and show associates flew in from all over the country to attend the historic taping. Actor Jeremy Piven of "Entourage" and cycling champion Lance Armstrong were also on hand.
Not surprisingly, Lickona said the things he'll miss least about Studio 6A are the limited capacity and the difficulty loading in equipment. "This studio wasn't designed for this type of live music program," he said, "but the new place is."
Brett Boreing, 43, got his ticket through the "ACL" host hotel, where he works. "It's just so intimate and relaxed," he said of the 6A experience. "I love all the quirky things, like taking the elevator to go to the bathroom and the tables of free beer. I hope that feeling carries over to the new place."
Lickona said the days of free beer will be over at the new venue, which will have a liquor license and therefore can't give out beer.
Also in line about an hour before the doors opened was Bob Lander, head of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. "One of the most asked questions we get from visitors is 'How can we get tickets to "ACL"?' and we have to tell them that it's next to impossible. The new venue capacity might make it a little easier."
Crew members hugged one another during soundcheck and reminisced. But once the 8 p.m. show started, it was business as usual.
"If this was our last show, we'd be crying our eyes out," said monitor engineer Susan Bub, who's worked for the KLRU-owned program for 20 years. "But 'ACL' will live on." Bub said that the old backdrop and stage will remain at Studio 6A and that the crew has already planned to come back for an annual party.
"We're all a little nervous about moving because we don't know what to expect," Bub said. Though "ACL" has the run of Studio 6A, it will share Moody Theater with a company expected to promote 80 to 100 shows a year that aren't "ACL" tapings.
Camera operator Doug Robb, a veteran of 32 years at Studio 6A, said he's one of several crew members with more than three decades at "ACL," which Lickona estimates has hosted more than 800 tapings through the years. "You'll never see the continuity of crew like you see here," Robb said. "The show has become part of our DNA.
"We used to talk about how cool it would be to make it to Season 15. Season 20 wasn't a possibility. And yet here it is 36 years later, and we're still here."
Such iconic Austin clubs as the Vulcan Gas Company and the Armadillo World Headquarters helped establish the city's reputation as a place where music mattered. But "Austin City Limits" took the taste of the town national.
"This has been a great tradition," Lander said. "But we'll start a new tradition at the new place."
The new home of "Austin City Limits," as well as the new Ellen Lampl-designed skyline backdrop, will be unveiled at a gala Feb. 24. Willie Nelson is one of the owners of the new venue and is expected to be part of the grand opening, Lickona said.
"This isn't the end," Lickona said. "It's the end of an era."
Additional material from Ed Crowell.