Shining a steady light on Austin’s moonlight towers
A new documentary separates fact from fiction about the city’s beloved ‘electric light towers.’
Moontowers? Moonlight towers? Electric light towers?
It depends on when you got to know Austin.
“A reader was very upset that I referred to them as ‘moontowers,’” says Jeff Kerr, a medical doctor and published historian who, with longtime friend Ray Spivey, has made a new documentary film, “The Last of the Moonlight Towers.” “They actually didn’t become ‘moonlight towers’ right away. All over the country during the 1880s and ’90s, when they were built, they were called simply ‘electric light towers.’”
So how did the even shorter term “moontowers” enter the wider lexicon?
Kerr gives a suitably short answer: “Dazed and Confused.” A party scene in the 1993 Richard Linklater movie is set on a “moontower,” which, according to Spivey, was shot in Walter Long Park.
The Paramount Theatre promoted the term, too, in the 21st century by dubbing one of its signature events the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival.
The documentary, which will be screened at the Moontower Saloon on Manchaca Road on Nov. 11 and then again at the Austin History Center on Jan. 10, also can be purchased as a DVD at the Sue Patrick gift shop on Burnet Road and online at moontowermovie.com.
The longest memories
Kerr and Spivey grew up in Houston and attended Sharpstown High School. They didn’t know each other well as teens. But when Spivey’s stepdaughter purchased a copy of Kerr’s historical picture book “Austin, Texas: Then and Now” for Spivey and his wife, Spivey told her that he went to high school with Kerr, now a pediatric neurologist.
Once the pair was reunited, Spivey, who works in the state retirement system and is a self-taught artist, illustrated Kerr’s “Republic of Austin,” made up of stray stories that didn’t make it into his “Seat of Empire,” both books about the city’s earliest days. The friends decided to collaborate on more projects in other media.
“The first film that we started working on together was about the University of Houston basketball team and its ‘Game of the Century’ against No. 1 UCLA in 1968 in the Astrodome,” Kerr says. “But we couldn’t get through to the big names.”
“I had already started a doc on electric football,” Spivey says about the tabletop game. “There was a huge cult following for electric football.”
When they landed on the subject of the moonlight towers — originally, 31 skeletal spires scattered around settled Austin in the 1890s — the duo tried to find people who had been in Austin the longest time, including Richard Overton and Margaret Berry, both centenarians.
“We knew that they would have the best perspective as far as possible,” Kerr says. “We also talked to Richard’s friend Earlene Love, in her 90s, and then several youngsters 89 and under.”
One of the most effective documentary strategies in the video involves “man on the street” segments that collect the many myths and assumptions associated with the towers. The filmmakers also unearthed some long-buried news.
“We thought we were finished with the film,” Kerr says. “Then Eddie Mixon, an accountant, asked, ‘Did you include the one that the University of Texas knocked down by the stadium?’” He actually witnessed this. He saw some UT trucks intentionally backing up into it. He later realized they must have gone after the guy wires.”
The filmmakers hit the mother lode of moonlight tower lore — and actual expertise — in David Hoffman, an Austin restoration architect who worked on the Paramount Theatre and later helped analyze, preserve and reassemble the remaining 165-foot-tall towers in the 1990s.
“I’ve written the only book on electric light towers,” Hoffman likes to tell people with a smile. “I guess that makes me the world’s foremost authority on them.”
As part of a $1.3 million project, Hoffman’s team took apart and restored every element of the remaining 17 towers.
Austinites like to think of the moonlight towers as a strictly Austin phenomenon. It turns out that at least 20 cities erected electric light towers in the 1880s and ’90s to illuminate several blocks at a time. Some were very large and straddled the streets. Inventors, often in the Midwest, competed on designs and construction techniques.
“The earliest were just four sides wide at the base and shaped like a pyramid,” Kerr says. “Others were wrought iron beaten into a plus or star shape. Austin’s combine several of those concepts.”
Despite the number of electric light towers built in American cities — which became impractical once skyscrapers went up — one thing seems sure.
“Austin is the only place where they still stand,” Spivey says. “We haven’t found any evidence to the contrary.”
Sorting out the myths
If you have lived in Austin for just a few years, some of these legends will probably sound familiar.
• The moonlight towers were built in reaction to the Austin serial murders of 1884 and 1885.
“We were nervous about the whole ‘Servant Girl Annihilator’ thing,” Kerr says. “I firmly believe there was no direct link. We didn’t want to take a stand in the movie because someone might find someday a City Council meeting record where they said, ‘Let’s put them up to prevent. …’”
In the documentary, author Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the excellent book on the subject “The Midnight Assassin,” plays it safe on camera by saying that when the towers were lighted, Austinites certainly would have been still thinking about that crime wave.
• Author H.G. Wells took the electric light towers in London as an inspiration for Martian invaders in “The War of the Worlds.”
Hoffman discovered this detailed theory published in a Decatur, Ill., newspaper from 1908. Spivey and Kerr thought the theory was interesting enough to include it in the documentary.
• The moonlight towers have been cursed by many deaths.
“We only know of three persons who died falling off them,” Kerr says. “In 1895, two of the light trimmers fell and died. One was Louis Henna of the car sales family. One guy took his baby up there, but a priest talked him down.”
Spivey recounts one of the most enduring — and true — stories about dangerous encounters with moonlight towers.
“Jamie Fowler fell from one in 1930,” he says. “He lived. To simulate Jamie falling, we created a ball of packing tape with two GoPro cameras and strung it on a 500-foot string. When Austin Energy workers were taking down the lights, they kindly agreed to draw it slowly up, then let it bounce down. That’s how Jamie saved his life. He pinged back and forth against the tower.”
Bunky Fowler Moore, perhaps a cousin of Fowler’s, according to Spivey, also fell from a tower, but he died.
“Funny part about Jamie’s story,” Spivey says. “After Jamie got out of the hospital, he was hit by a car, and the wheels ran over his body. He was an accident-prone kid. But he lived to an old age.”
UPDATE: An incorrect history of the moonlight tower that is decorated as the Zilker Christmas Tree was included in an earlier version of this story.