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Armadillo bazaar moves into new era

Denise Gamino

The 'Dillo babies are taking over.

At 6:30 a.m. today, four young women will emerge from behind the scenes to change the future of the popular arts and music holiday show that grew from the counterculture Armadillo World Headquarters music club in the 1970s.

They will grab smart phones and laptops and head out in the darkness to assume key roles in the 35th annual 'Dillo, arriving at first light to help set up the show at the Palmer Events Center, where it will open Wednesday for a 10-day run.

The quartet of new leaders grew up with the 'Dillo and was hand-picked by the longtime producers of the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar so the popular show will go on after they retire or phase out.

"Calendar pages don't stop turning. You want this legacy to go on," said Bruce Willenzik, 63, the exuberant, pony-tailed producer of the bazaar for 30 years who drives a used '98 Honda Civic and jokes that his cell phone is still in a box in China.

"There's so much love in and around the show, it'd be a shame if it stopped because Bruce and I weren't around to do it anymore," said Annie Harding, 55, who is Willenzik's life partner and associate producer of the show.

Willenzik and Harding met with the four women over Thursday night dinners this year in Willenzik's cluttered and informal kitchen, where the home-cooked food is memorable and the black-and-white linoleum tile is worn away in more than a few spots. Shoes slip off, colorful language flies and ideas are tossed about like holiday confetti.

"No job has ever let me be me as much as this one," said a barefoot Anne Kelley, 28, whose first job was handing out fliers for the 'Dillo as a 5-year-old.

The Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, which draws about 35,000 visitors and showcases more than 160 artists, operates like a family, not a corporation. Its guiding principle is happiness: Keep everyone involved — artists, customers, building workers and bazaar staffers — happy. The "Prime Directive" of the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar ends with, "If you just can't be happy being here, then happy trails to you."

The up-and-coming producers have no intention of changing that special culture. They're more comfortable with tattoos and pierced noses than business suits or briefcases. Willenzik says they haven't been "polluted by too many years of going to a business school and learning the normal model."

The next-generation Armadillo leaders are enthusiastic, savvy and loyal. All four have held seasonal jobs at the show for years. And they have the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar in their DNA because their parents worked the show or sold art there. Three of them have attended the show since infancy, earning the "'Dillo baby" nickname.

These are the faces of the future:

• Kelley, who earned a bachelor's degree in communication from Texas State University, played in a crib at the 'Dillo. Her father, Bart, is the longtime night manager of the show. Her mother is a former employee. Kelley, an Austin native, has spent every Christmas Eve at the bazaar with her family, including her late grandmother. This year, she recruited new artists, handled public relations and took over social media. She will manage the box office for the show.

• Elia Feliz Albarran, 25, was a baby on her mother's hip when she attended her first Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. Her parents were — and still are — artists on the Renaissance festival circuit, so she grew up traveling the country. She continues to face-paint at Renaissance fests, as her mother does. Her father sold handmade jewelry at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar for a few years. This year, she is creative director and staff coordinator, which means she hires and schedules the seasonal workers. She will be assistant daytime manager during the show. She also makes jewelry with her partner, Brandon Eastes, and his mother, and the three will share a booth.

• Melissa Stewart, 36, moved to Austin in 1987 with Harding, her stepmother, who was office manager for Asleep at the Wheel. Stewart came to the show every year as a teen because she knew so many artists and musicians. She has a degree in physical geography from the University of Texas and is an education consultant. She also designs handcrafted stationery and will have a table at the show in the evenings during the last week. This year, she will work the "back desk," the show's all-important communications center in a corner of the sales floor.

• Amanda Barnett, 28, is a direct descendant of the Armadillo World Headquarters, where both her parents worked for subsistence wages. She was raised on music and wild stories about famous musicians and hippie life. She earned degrees in history and anthropology from Texas State University and teaches first grade at City School. She and her husband have a 3-year-old son and are expecting another child in May. This year, she is chief decorator and assistant night manager.

The four women have known each other casually over the years, but since being chosen to carry the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar far into the 21st century, they have bonded. They party together, share secrets and support one another through emotional ups and downs.

"Bruce is family to me, and the girls are like sisters to me now," Stewart said.

The friends learned about their big opportunity in the fall of 2009, when Willenzik and Harding invited them to a dinner of chicken and beans at Willenzik's South Austin house, which has enough disheveled piles on chairs, tables and floors to qualify as a museum of Austin culture except that a curator wouldn't tolerate the dust. A paper "Happy Birthday" banner hangs permanently in the living room, and paintings and sculptures of armadillos are showcased in every room. The former Armadillo World Headquarters cook still uses the green card table bought with 1960s-era grocery store green stamps under which singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams slept for a couple of weeks in the 1970s. Willenzik would rather organize the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar than his modest domicile.

Tearing up, he recalls chopping veggies at the prep island in his kitchen last year when he made his offer to the young women. "OK," he told them, "we've got a big decision to make about the future of the show. I've got three choices.

"I could run this show until I get too old and retire and drop dead, and then it's all over. What great memories y'all will have in your old age."

"Are you sick?" they asked him.

"No, I just had a checkup; I'm fine. But I'm 60, and soon I'm going to be 70, and then I'm going to be 80."

"Well, what else could we do?" they asked.

"I could sell this show to some best of all management corporation. You'd be embarrassed in a couple of years at the way they run it."

The women made faces and asked for other options.

"Well, I could make y'all into the team, and y'all could turn into the folks who take it over when we want to retire, and y'all can buy it and own it and have it for yours until such time as you want to pass it along to the next generation."

Their eyes widened as the idea sunk in. Willenzik dubbed them the "A Team," short for Armadillo Team.

"Honestly, I wasn't sure what he meant," remembers Barnett. "It seemed very apocalyptic. How could anyone run the show without Bruce?"

Willenzik grew up in New Orleans, where his family owned an upscale men's clothing shop on Canal Street called Rubenstein Bros. He began working in the store when he was 12, soaking up endless tips on how to showcase merchandise and treat customers. He earned a degree in business management in 1970 from the University of Oklahoma, which he attended on the suggestion of a friend.

He headed to Austin in 1972 and was hired to straighten out the kitchen of the Armadillo World Headquarters two years later.

"I tried using some of the (business) school management stuff on the Armadillo hippies and was told, 'Oh, no. We don't believe in any of that stuff.'\u2009"

Inspired by the street wisdom of a friend, blues singer Mance Lipscomb, Willenzik figured out a way to get the best out of people without being authoritarian, a way to get people to understand they all could benefit if they worked toward a common goal.

"The idea is you bring out the best in others by showing the best in yourself, and then everyone's stuck with nothing but the best," he said. "You don't get that with corporate authority. You get that with our Armadillo method. Nothing works better. It's the best business model out there.

"And this is something we expect the A Team to learn very well," he said. "They've been working their tails off for a year."

The new A Team members are soaking up the colorful lore and quirks of the iconoclastic bazaar. They don't even blink when Willenzik and Harding, who works in the physics department at UT and has her own home, dress every day in knotted bolo ties from the booth of "Mr. String," a beloved 'Dillo toy merchant who died last year just after the show. The young women sport their own branded jewelry — necklaces with silver armadillo pendants.

Willenzik runs the show with a firm but gentle hand, sometimes imposing order like a four-star general and other times nurturing and advising like a wise dad.

It may be surprising to learn that an arts show created by a group of hippies has some strict rules that are, in some cases, more stringent than government code. For example, each art booth is required to provide an up-to-date fire extinguisher that must be placed at the front of the booth every night before the show is locked up. The fire extinguishers are inspected by 'Dillo staffers before opening day and a 1-cent or 2-cent U.S. postage stamp is attached to the canister as proof of inspection.

Why postage stamps? They're cheap and don't fall off like office supply sticky dots.

The classic 1973 Luckenbach recording of Gary P. Nunn's "London Homesick Blues" opens the show every morning and closes it each night.

Why? The mood is set when everyone hears, "I wanna go home with the Armadillo."

Unlike at some other fine arts shows, the artists at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar pay just a flat booth fee and do not have to share part of their proceeds with the show's producers. Sometimes booth fees are hand-delivered at the show. The checks must be placed in a business-size envelope. Greeting cards or other odd-shaped envelopes will not be accepted.

Why? An artist once placed a check inside a greeting card and then stuffed it into a load of Christmas gifts that Willenzik and Harding were carrying out of the show. It took them until the next February to find the check in Willenzik's house.

At the end of every night, all staffers and artists walk out together. No one has to hunt for his or her car alone in the dark.

Why? There is safety in numbers.

The numeral 709 is hidden in the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar poster, just as it was on posters for the Armadillo World Headquarters.

Why? Ask a 'Dillo staffer. It's a long story with multiple plot lines.

And the show gives artists a tutorial about how to light their booths because the house lights are off during the show. Willenzik is a fanatic for proper lighting. He says good lighting turns displayed art into "eye bait" and bad lighting leads to "eye bite" that will divert attention from the art.

Painter and former lawyer Collin Welsch, a new artist at this year's 'Dillo, said Willenzik saw her booth at another art show earlier this year and commented about the lighting.

"I was eagerly showing him some of my newest pieces, which are very shiny because they are covered in resin," she said. "All of a sudden, we both looked at each other and said, 'Oh, no. Eye bite!' We laughed. I know Bruce will help me figure it out."

Willenzik and Harding didn't ask the four women for business plans on how they would operate the show in the future. But they knew the women were forward-thinkers who could grow ideas.

"I think that the whole A Team really wants to bring the bazaar into the 21st century," Albarran said. "Austin has changed so drastically even just in the last five years since I've moved here. It's become a more modern and sophisticated place to live and work, so we want the bazaar to grow and change with the general climate in Austin."

The artists will notice the new high-profile faces at this year's show. Their reactions to the new producers probably will be reflected in the secret scrapbook that circulates throughout each 'Dillo.

Artists decorate the pages in various ways: paintings, collages, poems, jokes and other artwork. The book is presented with gratitude to Willenzik and Harding at the closing each year.

The tradition started decades ago when all the artists signed an orange for Willenzik, who kept it at home until the fruit's skin turned black and the names were no longer legible. Scrapbooks have a longer shelf life.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned this year by the young producers is how to choose and mentor their own successors when that time comes.

Kelley's young nieces already talk about what jobs they will have at the 'Dillo when they grow up.

"So if I'm going to work for you someday, does that mean that Granddad works for you now?" asked 9-year-old Eliza, referring to Kelley's dad, the night manager.

Yes, Kelley told her. "But don't tell him I said that."

dgamino@statesman.com; 445-3675

CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Anne Kelley's last name.