Swanberg Fantastic Fest

Director Joe Swanberg raises his gloves in a Fantastic debate victory.

In 2005, just when we deluded ourselves into thinking the film-going experience at South Lamar could not get any better, a Salvation Army went out of business. As non sequitur as that thought couplet may seem, Tim League purchased that empty storefront and in its place wrought forth on this town something truly magnificent. A 60s themed bar/nightclub/restaurant called The Highball Lounge appeared like a frenzied mirage. Outfitted with the kind of decorum that would tickle Don Draper’s tenderest parts, The Highball became a centerpiece of Fantastic Fest, then an integral part of the Drafthouse’s extra special screenings, and finally one of Austin’s hottest nightspots.

“I think when we first designed South Lamar, we built a lobby to be far too small for our needs. It was always overflowing on Friday and Saturday nights,” Tim admitted, “we were looking for a remote lounge for the theater. When the Salvation Army left, we ended up renting it a few times for big parties. We did a casino night party, I think for one of the Bond movies. We did a vampire prom, I’m not sure what movie it was for, but it really worked. That shopping center just by its nature, the space was relatively cheap. We decided to lease it so we’d have access to a space like that to throw tangential parties for the theater. And certainly those parties became part of the identity of Fantastic Fest”

The number of fine specialty cocktails consumed, moves broken on the dance floor, and songs belted triumphantly in the private karaoke rooms has become too numerous to count since the lounge’s inception; partially due to the aforementioned cocktails. This was the place where we saw once-in-a-lifetime phenomena like Tim League, Elijah Wood, and The Rza karaoke singing The Blackeyed Peas. It was the place where I met personal idols like Roger Corman and Rick Baker. So if the shopping center is being torn down, what fate will befall this bastion of intoxicated geekery?  Fear not, Highballers, our beloved lounge isn’t going anywhere. Well, actually it is going somewhere; moving closer in fact.

“It’ll be adjoining the theater,” League reminds us, “the space was designed with the fixtures we have. The look and feel will be the same. We’re carefully dismantling and storing all the stuff so that we can reassemble it once the space is back.”

The one casualty in this movie will be The Highball’s gorgeous antique bowling lanes. Pour out a little White Russian in honor of this fallen fixture. So what can we expect from the new Alamo South Lamar? Aside from the swanky new architecture, Tim gave us the inside scoop on some other new features.

“I kind of like the old, funky South Lamar shopping center, and I’m sure I’ll like the new one. But since the center is going to be shutting down, it is giving us the opportunity to make some changes. We’re adding a couple of screens, we’re making a bigger lobby, and we’re putting The Highball next to the Alamo, which will be more convenient. I think ultimately this will be a good thing, but I’m also happy with the way it is right now.”

Talking to a few of the Drafthouse’s erudite regular customers about their favorite South Lamar memories, it was clear my experience was anything but isolated:

“I saw Hamburger: The Motion Picture there. Their dorm beds were burgers. I said ‘I’m going to do that,’ and then I did. And the Internet liked it. I thanked the Drafthouse by wearing their shirt in my InTouch magazine photoshoot,” said Kayla Kromer, Craft Geek Extraordinaire and the creator of famed Hamburger Bed.

“In early 2012, I realized that I was coming up on my 1,000th Drafthouse screening since I’d started keeping track of them at the beginning of 2010,” mused uber faithful Drafthouse patron Neil Wilson,  “there were a ton of great experiences in those 1,000 movies, but I hadn’t yet gotten a chance to see my all-time favorite movie on the big screen: Oldboy. When I inquired about renting the theater and getting some help tracking down a 35mm print, Tim quickly responded that they would make it happen for me, and on March 1st I got to see a near-pristine print of Oldboy in a theater full of friends and fellow film enthusiasts.  It was even more magical than I could have hoped. I’ve spent countless hours at the South Lamar Drafthouse over the last several years and am very sad to see it go, but I’m already excited for the re-opening with even more screens and hopefully thousands movies to be seen and memories to be made.”

Carolee Mitchell relayed the story of one of South Lamar’s greatest film stunts: “We went to Drafthouse South Lamar to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on 35mm. I was thrilled, as that movie made a huge impact on me as a kid when I saw it with my family. The film began. The film broke. Tim went to “fix it.” Leonard Nimoy came on stage. I lost my mind. We were told that we are actually seeing the world premiere of the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. Mind was further lost as we experienced a great film. This was just a glimpse into the constant surprises that we encountered at that theater.”

“A lot of [my favorite Lamar memories] are tied to Fantastic Fest, it’s the biggest party we throw each year,” offered Tim League himself, “just [a few weeks ago] Nacho Vigalondo, who premiered Timecrimes in 2007 and who has become a real part of the fest, just finished shooting his first English language feature. He wrote the script, and the script starts off at Fantastic Fest. So we recreated Fantastic Fest. The movie stars Elijah Wood, who is someone Nacho met at Fantastic Fest.  It was just bizarre to see the festival captured in film from the perspective of a guy like Nacho who has been such a part of the festival. A strange tribute to South Lamar and Fantastic Fest.”

Recalling the time I witnessed a drunken Nacho powerbomb Elijah Wood onto a concrete floor covered in broken glass, I realized many of my favorite South Lamar memories also revolve around this wild Spanish Fantastic Fest mainstay.

It wasn’t until the closing night of the Alamo South Lamar that the full impact of its loss, in its current form that is, affected me. This was the building in which the decision was solidified in my mind to move to Austin. This is where I saw the first movie I ever reviewed online for any outlet. This is where I met nearly all of my friends, both in-town and visiting from afar. Sure, there will continue to be a location on that namesake boulevard, but there will never be another Alamo South Lamar like the one we know and love.


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