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'Austin Variety Show' moves into Highland Mall

Dale Roe, On TV

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Troy Dillinger looks a little sleepy. Giving me the 10-cent tour of the new television production/live theater space that he has just moved into Highland Mall, the contagiously positive host of "The Austin Variety Show" on KBVO is a bundle of energy, but you get the impression that his heavy eyelids could slam shut at any moment.

Maybe that's because he's so busy.

"My problem is I don't let go," Dillinger says. "I take on a new skill set, but I won't let go of the others. I'm the producer. I host. I edit." He admits to being a bit of a control freak.

A Canton, Ohio, native who moved to Austin at the age of 8 in 1975, Dillinger looks a lot like Joel Hodgson (remember Joel, the sleepy stand-up comic who created and helmed "Mystery Science Theater 3000"?) but doughier. Not much doughier, though — he's dropped about 20 pounds courtesy of show sponsor Fit and Fearless.

Dillinger, a longtime entrepreneur and musician, dreamed up "Austin Swim," the mid-2000s local viewing parties for Cartoon Network's Sunday night "Adult Swim" block of programming. After initially creating the event as an opportunity for his band to play weekly, Dillinger added local comics, musicians and other performers — and a swimming pool — and turned the whole shebang into a two-hour, pre-show party.

The event bounced around various venues until, Dillinger diplomatically says, relationships with the network became strained. Though he had to drop the viewing party portion of the event, Dillinger parlayed his relationships with sponsors and acts into the "Austin Variety Show."

"When the deal with ‘Adult Swim' went south, I thought, ‘Let's do the other two hours. And it's so much fun, let's put it on camera,' " he recalls.

The show was eventually taped in a studio on South Congress Avenue, although Dillinger and company shot some events at the Highball on South Lamar Boulevard. The South Congress tapings regularly were filled to capacity, so the host went hunting for a larger space he could afford on the operation's shoestring budget.

Poking around Facebook, he ran across an ad that read, "Highland Mall — we're not closed."

"I thought, ‘Oh, my God,' " he recalls. "I've got the icky salesman gene, so my first thought was, ‘Well, they've got space and we've got a relationship with a lot of local businesses,' so the wheels started turning."

Dillinger contacted the venue's management with the idea of turning it into the country's first "local business mall." He's not old, but he is old enough to remember when local businesses were strangled by the convenience of enclosed shopping malls (Highland was Austin's first). Now local businesses face a new challenge from the Internet.

"Retail is on the ropes," Dillinger says. "A lot of medium-sized and locally owned businesses are really taking it in the shorts in terms of traffic. Let's fill the mall with local businesses." He thinks foot traffic in the mall will increase with Austin Community College's purchase of the mall's former Macy's and Dillard's stores.

Highland management showed interest in Dillinger's ideas, and "The Austin Variety Show" moved in on May 1 with a one-year lease.

"It was a little unusual to discuss leasing store space for the production and filming of a television show," says Darlene Collins, Highland Mall's specialty leasing manager. "(But) we strive to bring excitement, entertainment, festivity and a bit of the unexpected to our customers."

She calls Dillinger a "seasoned professional" who is "a pleasure to work with," and says there were no concerns about the show's content, which can be raunchy (Dillinger calls it a combination of high production and low-brow humor — "I love the idea of taking 25, maybe 30 people from Austin and paying their bills making a show about fart jokes," he says). Since tapings don't begin until after the mall closes, there's no chance of a family, for instance, accidentally stumbling across burlesque performers in the new studio's storefront windows.

The mall, with its share of empty storefronts, has seen better days, but it appears to be surprisingly well-suited to the show's needs. The show occupies a trio of former chain stores. The middle, theater space — complete with a suite of dressing rooms and a prop workshop — used to be a Casual Corner. The room to the left of the stage serves as a lobby where audience members, who pay $15 for a ticket ($13.50 in advance), enjoy pre-show beer and barbecue near booths set up by the show's sponsors. The third storefront houses Dillinger's offices and post-production equipment.

Crowd whoops it up

The enthusiastic audience of thirtysomethings and up at the June 25 inaugural taping in the new facility seemed uniquely Austin — there were plenty of ink-blotted arms and lower backs, some body jewelry and touches of gray painting the ponytails and sideburns on display. The crowd whooped it up for Dillinger — dressed in swim trunks and a snorkel (a tie-in to summer or perhaps "Austin Swim"?) — who presented an off-color, self-deprecating introduction to the proceedings. They were attentive for the intelligent and crafted humor of Funniest Person in Austin winner Andy Ritchie. And they rocked out to the dancing of the Austin City Showgirls and the music of Ghost Knife, who I can almost guarantee produced the loudest sounds ever to be heard inside the mall.

The crowd even enjoyed the humorous commercials, projected on a large screen in between acts. Dillinger splits the commercial time with KBVO, according to station General Manager Eric Lassberg. "They go out and sell their cut of the (advertising) inventory, and that's how they finance their deal," he says. KBVO sells the rest.

Lassberg adds that he's trying to have the station — populated by local sporting events — driven by locally oriented programming and is open to similar programming pitches from others.

"I think it's bold of Eric Lassberg to go, ‘OK, we'll put this on,' " Dillinger says. "He might be able to make a little more money off of another episode of ‘My Name Is Earl' than they make off of us, you know. But he took a chance with us, and I think we're starting to make it worth their while."

It's definitely a labor of love for Dillinger, who refers to himself as a longtime broke musician, and the 10 to 20 collaborators helping him with the show at any given time. "It's two or three full-time jobs," he says. "I don't come from money; I've never had a bad car accident that I collected insurance on. At any given time, I'm maybe 30 days away from homelessness. The bulk of what we do comes from sponsors."

Dillinger hopes to eventually make the venue available to other parties. "We want to help build traffic at the mall," he says. "And we've got a great bounty here and it would be a shame not to share it." And he is working toward stockpiling enough episodes to sell the show into syndication.

"It would be nice to get rich, you know? If we sell the show, I'll be able to get out of debt and maybe put a down payment on a house. It would be nice to have my living situation be secure. But I really do this because I love it. I love laughing and — even when I was playing music — I love making people laugh. It's good for you."

droe@statesman.com; 912-5923

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