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Movie star Paul Rudd walks into a bar, then ...

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

One night, Paul Rudd walks into a Bastrop bar. The comic movie star, along with Icelandic and American cohorts, dote on the karaoke hostess. They ask her to perform for their wrap party at a ranch outside Smithville. Taken aback, Presley Roeber says "sure" and subsequently has a blast, including two dunks in the pool and a little quality time with Rudd.

A few minutes with Austinite Roeber (say it RA-ber), and you'd figure out why the makers of the under-the-radar movie, "Prince Avalanche," cottoned to this insurance agent who moonlights as a karaoke princess. Petite, outspoken — and a good deal more presentable than the post-dunking snapshot below — Roeber is a bottle rocket ready to blaze.

The Gonzales-born graduate of Westlake High School skipped college and worked a series of office jobs before starting a sing-along show at an Austin lesbian bar. She later hauled her talents out to Cindy's Downtown watering hole in Bastrop, a sporty counterpart to the biker-themed Cindy's Gone Hog Wild on Texas 71.

"I love the people in that bar," Roeber, 30, says. "They get into it. Good singers and crappy singers, too. They are into the show and into the whole vibe."

Why do guests drive from Elgin, Smithville, La Grange and Austin for the regular karaoke?

"Because I'm awesome," she says. "I don't just host. I have a joke or comeback for everything. I get into it with the crowd. I make it fun for everybody."

Her boyfriend, J.W. Tucker, a safety cowboy on the pro rodeo circuit, doesn't crave the spotlight as much as Roeber does, but they share one trait.

"I'll say it like it is," she says. "I don't care."

The crew for the movie, an adaptation of an Icelandic film, attended her show first. That's when she heard reports of Rudd and co-star Emile Hirsch in the vicinity. When a cousin pointed out Rudd in the crowd at a later show, Roeber freaked out a bit.

"I lost it," she says. "That's him looking through my karaoke book!"

Rudd carefully paged through Roeber's extensive musical collection. Then he stood nearby, smiling and holding a beer, while one crew member asked if she'd entertain at the wrap party two days later.

"I gave them my card," says the Venture Prosound contractor. "Then I preceded to scream into the phone at my boss, ‘Whatever they tell you, we'll take it!' "

At the Smithville spread, she calmed her nerves and got right to work. Rudd, wearing a porn-star moustache for his movie role, belted out Steve Earle's "Guitar Town," the Manhattans' "Kiss and Say Goodbye" and Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty." Hirsch preferred Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

"The Icelanders sang a lot of old country and western," Roeber says. "They nailed it, too."

Eventually, Roeber figured she'd end up in the pool, but guests kindly warned her to remove her phone and jewelry.

"I'd gotten an autograph for my cousin," she says of Rudd. "It got ruined."

She couldn't believe that all these movie folks were so gracious and down-to-earth.

"They tell you famous people are just like real people," she says. "I was always like: ‘Oh yeah, sure.' But Rudd was excited that I was there and kept asking what I needed. I'm still pinching myself."

Until recently, I knew only two things about Walter Winchell:

1. He was a very powerful newspaper and radio columnist from the 1920s through the 1950s.

2. Winchell inspired the odious character played by Burt Lancaster in the brilliant film about New York columnists and press agents, "Sweet Smell of Success," co-starring Tony Curtis.

A few weeks ago, sifting through the books left behind by late Austin columnist John Bustin, I recovered a copy of Neal Gabler's compelling 1994 biography, "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity." Gabler confirmed my impression that Winchell was clinically insecure, abusive, venal and vengeful. In other words, a reverse role model for Out & About.

To be fair, Gabler also taught me that Winchell's rat-a-rat Broadway style influenced a generation of imitators. (Imagine him as a second-rate vaudevillian played by an always angry James Cagney.) The columnist also democratized social reporting and undermined New York's stale social order. Most surprising to me: He was a huge asset to President Franklin Roosevelt and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, chasing criminals and pushing FDR's New Deal and entry into World War II.

The ranting writer who reached as many as 60 million people in a country of 150 million began to stumble when he tussled with black dancer Josephine Baker, columnist and later TV host Ed Sullivan, as well as publications like the New York Post and the New Yorker. His popularity further waned as he supported another pitiless mudslinger, Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And unlike Sullivan, Winchell's act never translated well to television.

I'll stick with exemplars from roughly the same era, like Herb Caen and Joseph Mitchell.

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com