Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Happy 50th to Eeyore’s Birthday Party

Kristin Finan
kfinan@statesman.com

An invitation to a birthday party for Winnie-the-Pooh’s beloved donkey friend isn’t something most college students are excited to receive.

But the festive spirit of this particular invitation, which promised music, special entertainment and “suitable free beverage, such as beer,” inspired hundreds to show up at Eastwoods Park on May 8, 1964, to eat cake, dance around a maypole and pose with a rented donkey that stood in for Eeyore.

“The first year, we also had a pig for Piglet,” said Lloyd Birdwell, “but after one year, that was enough of the pig.”

Birdwell was a student at the University of Texas when he came up with the idea to throw Eeyore’s Birthday Party.

“Somebody simply came into my room and said, ‘What’s going on?’” Birdwell said. “I said, ‘We’re giving Eeyore’s birthday party.’ I’d never read “Winnie-the-Pooh,” but a sorority had been doing a bunch of Winnie-the-Pooh things, and I think the name just stuck in my brain. That’s how it began.”

These days, Eeyore’s Birthday Party — now held in Pease Park — is one of the city’s most popular annual events, thanks to its reputation for being noncommercial and for embracing all types of people. This year’s 50th annual celebration on Saturday, is expected to draw thousands of visitors over the course of the day.

“What I think is really cool about it is that it’s sort of a rite of spring,” said Brian Birzer, a professional photographer who has been attending since the mid-1990s. “It’s quintessential ‘Keep Austin Weird’ in a lot of ways.”

Scott Sexton, president of the Friends of the Forest Foundation, which puts on the event, said the organizers work hard to make sure that it remains open to all.

“We tend to draw a lot of free spirits,” Sexton said. “We’re not necessarily pushing the hippie agenda or anything like that, but there are people who like being outdoors at the park, who like knowing that in Austin, Texas, you can still go out on a Saturday afternoon to a big event and not have to pay a $30 entrance fee.”

It’s a spirit of acceptance that echoes Birdwell’s original intention. “If you try to put a philosophy behind it, just don’t, because there shouldn’t be any,” said Birdwell, who is now 70 and lives in Dallas.

Although the event has always been open to everyone, invitations were sent out in the early days to students, faculty and notable figures such as the president, the governor and various senators. Birdwell remembers the year that Lady Bird Johnson attended with her daughter, Lynda Bird.

“Lynda Bird was a great Winnie-the-Pooh fan, and she came to the party and brought her mother,” Birdwell said.

At the first party, Birdwell dressed in a tux — “because it was a formal occasion” — and added a magician’s cape. His parents showed up as a scarecrow and the Wicked Witch of the West. These days, the costumes run the gamut.

Sexton’s first visit to the event was in the 1980s. He started volunteering and then got more involved.

“We have no paid staff that runs Eeyore’s. All of the people you see selling T-shirts, selling beer, all of those people are volunteers that want to help out local nonprofits,” he said.

Children have become an integral part of the celebration, with a number of activities geared directly toward them.

“It’s just so fulfilling to know that we’re able to do something that helps retain the spirit of Austin,” Sexton said.

Eeyore’s Birthday Party