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Mars tracks the last hurrah at Texas Stadium

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

If you want to tend bar in the Dallas area, you'd better know your sports. And you'd really better know your Dallas Cowboys.

Austin actor Jonny Mars is no dummy. During his time working restaurant and bar gigs in Dallas, he amassed an impressive catalog of Cowboys facts and stats. If you hope to make money behind a bar, you need to be able to talk with facility and passion about the Cowboys. The regulars aren't coming in at happy hour or Sunday afternoons to talk about their 401(k)s or their children.

Over the years Mars became a Cowboys fan, but the contrarian in him would never allow him to attend a game at the since-demolished Texas Stadium. He preferred watching games on TV. He didn't want to go to Texas Stadium. Wouldn't go. It was an odd point of pride. A conversation piece. It was his bit.

One day he finally relented. Mars attended his first Cowboys home game in 2006. What he saw in the parking lot that day in Irving would surprise and amaze him. It would also lead to "America's Parking Lot," Mars' directorial debut that makes its world premiere Sunday at South by Southwest.

As they made their pre-game rounds through the vast expanse of the Texas Stadium parking lot, eating bratwurst and taking shots of Jägermeister, Mars' friend kept enticing him with tales of the legendary Gate 6 tailgaters. Mars wouldn't believe the scene, his friend told him. It was a mix of bros and bacchanalia, a freewheeling, self-regulated (just barely) pep rally that had been going on for more than two decades, fueled by the unbridled passion of a group of regulars. When they arrived, Mars was not disappointed. A diminutive bulldog of a man nicknamed "Tiger" was exhorting the crowd from a megaphone. Friends and strangers (who would soon join the ranks of friends) drank and went wild. Across the way, a jolly middle-aged man named Cy was working his massive pit, dishing out ribs, sausage and sides for a countless stream of revelers. It was a backyard barbecue party writ large and infused with an almost incomprehensible love for the local football team.

"As I stood in that parking lot, the hair stood up on my arms, and I thought, ‘There is utter conflict happening in this parking lot, and no one wants to talk about it,' " Mars said. "And on top of that, this is completely cinematic. It's a subculture I've never seen, and there's a market for this. It hit all the crucial points I thought were necessary for me to invest so many of my years into a project."

The conflict mentioned by Mars was in its nascent stages. Dark clouds formed and thunder rumbled; a downpour was on its way. Yes, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was building a state-of-the-art stadium that would rival any on Earth, but the price of admission for season ticket holders was about to get a big, fat caveat.

Personal seat licenses were being added as a prerequisite for season ticket purchase. That meant denizens of the Gate 6 tailgate were about to be asked to drop thousands of extra dollars simply for the right to purchase season tickets at the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.

The licenses, known as PSLs, would last for 30 years and range from $5,000 to $150,000 per seat. For some, like Cy and Tiger, this meant a re-budgeting of personal finances. But for many more it spelled the end of season-ticket ownership, a status that defined many of their lives. What it meant for all, however, was the end of the Gate 6 tailgate party.

There was money to be made, and if you wanted a seat at Jones' new beautiful table, you either opened up your wallet or you started shopping for a new TV. Many of the fanatics from Gate 6 were about to lose their home away from home, the place they met at least 10 times a year to share in their mutual obsession. Mars recognized that life was about to change for many of the people he befriended at his first Cowboys game, and he wanted to document the process. He attended the last 15 games of the season, as the mourning of Texas Stadium and the furor over the new PSLs reached a crescendo. And though he never put a football team before a marriage, painted his face blue and silver or used a replica Cowboys helmet as a telephone, Mars could relate to their obsession.

Mars had worked for a decade as an actor. He landed his first lead role in 1997's "American Detective." But the roles, and more importantly, the finances to keep his dream alive, were coming in starts and fits. Much like the final season at Gate 6, Mars began to envision his documentary as a possible swan song. With "America's Parking Lot," Mars said he decided to push all of his chips into the center of the table for one last shot.

"This idea of them identifying something that's sort of superficial, as an actor and a wannabe filmmaker, there's a scary part of me that gets that, too," Mars said. "These guys are sort of a mirror that I could look into, even if it's a funhouse mirror. I could relate to them, I think, in a way that kind of terrified me."

The kinship Mars felt to the superfans he documented over the last two seasons at Texas Stadium kept the filmmaker from infusing "America's Parking Lot" with a mocking or condescending tone. It helped that Cy, Tiger and their friends were imminently likable folks. They just happened to be people who invested countless dollars and a mind-boggling amount of energy into a franchise in which they had no ownership. But they came by their obsession honestly.

Cy, who foots the food bill for the tailgate parties, put off building a house to commit financial resources to season tickets. Tiger admits his love for the Cowboys ended his first marriage. (His second wife finds his enthusiasm charming and infectious.) At first blush, the blind duty to all things Cowboys seems pitiful, but as "America's Parking Lot" unfolds, you begin to have sympathy for these die-hards who have become collateral damage in the high-stakes world of corporatized sports.

"As soon as I feel bad for them, I'm instantly reminded of what I'm doing with my life," Mars said. "A lot of people judge these guys. But one of the reasons they're so scary is because they're honest."

Mars moved to Austin in 2008, and continues to pursue his dream of making a living as an actor, producer and director. Though saddened by the sterilized tailgating scene at the new Cowboys Stadium and turned off by billionaires using taxpayer money to build private sports palaces while many middle-class fans are left watching from their couches, Mars recognizes that money is the bottom line not just in sports but in every facet of life.

As for following the Cowboys, Mars said he's still the same fan. But you won't find the TV at his house tuned to the Cowboys every Sunday.

"I don't even watch TV anymore," Mars said.

Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986

"America's Parking Lot" world premiere