The stretch of Sixth Street running east of Congress Avenue in downtown Austin has enjoyed many colorful lives over the 180-odd years since the city’s founding — periods of boom and bust motivated by surrounding growth and changing transportation systems have taken this street from an enclave of minority-friendly immigrant-owned retail stores all the way to the present bar and entertainment district we’ve known since roughly the late 1980s, for better or worse. But though the business environment of East Sixth Street was firmly in decline by the 1970s, this stunning photo snapped for the preservation archives of the Texas Historical Commission on June 1, 1979, captures the soul of the street in this era so fully it’s hard not to miss it:
Every time you look you see something new and intriguing — the barbecue joint, the adult movie theater plus arcade, that kickass van. It’s like a vacation in one photo, and to maximize our time spent here we’re going to run down our favorite details, mostly from left to right except for the one we’re saving for last.
The Present-Day Location:
You might have a “sixth” sense for this sort of thing, and if so you won’t be surprised to learn that this photo depicts the southwest corner of East Sixth and Red River Streets. A lot has changed since then, but compare the modern street view above and you’ll see a few things have stuck around — for one, the street light’s still there!
The JJJ Tavern
Operated at the corner of East Sixth and Red River Streets by namesake Joe J. Joseph where you’ll now find the entrance to Esther’s Follies, the JJJ Tavern once served as one of the major watering holes on a street not yet completely dominated by them between 1950 and 1982. We figure the list of novelty shots served at this establishment was pretty short, but the decor and chairs were fabulous.
The Adult Movie Theater:
First opened in 1939 as the Cactus Theatre, this screening space at 521 East Sixth Street has gone through almost as much change as the street itself. Here’s the rundown courtesy of the extremely detail-oriented folks at Cinema Treasures, though we’ll have to disagree with them about the Sixth and Neches Street thing — it’s much closer to the Red River side.
Opened in 1939, the Cactus Theatre is located at E. 6th Street and Neches Street. It was taken over by the Luccahese family and by 1955 it had been renamed Carver Theatre, operating as an African American movie theatre until around 1961. It 1962 it reopened as an art house theatre, which also screened adult movies. On December 19, 1963 it went over to Spanish movies and was renamed Teatro Carlos. In 1964 it was renamed Capri Theatre. Later going over to adult movies it was renamed Carver Theatre. In November 1973 it went over to screening repertory programmed movies and was renamed Vagabond Theatre. In April 1974 it returned to screening adult movies, which closed after being raided. In August 1975 it reopened as the Sun Theatre.
As you might imagine, the theater and its owner Chris Gernon had a few run-ins with the law — this account from a May 1975 issue of storied underground newspaper The Rag details a particularly amusing raid:
The theater part of the facility eventually became comedy club the Velveeta Room, but as you can see in the photo above where the fabric awning comes out over the sidewalk, the Sun also occupied part of the space next door, likely its lounge area with the aforementioned dancers and 25 cent arcade games — that side was later claimed by famous local theatre Esther’s Follies. Not a bad history for either establishment.
The Barbecue Joint (Sorry, “Barbeque”)
Freddie had a problem picking a single name for his business — Freddie’s Cafe and Freddie’s Barbecue were largely offshoots of his larger business at Freddie’s Catering, which is the only name to appear in the newspaper very much at the time.
Freddie was Fred Dagar, a first-generation Lebanese/Syrian-American and World War II veteran who ran a successful Austin catering operation specializing in barbecue for most of his life. Though this sort of epilogue is all too uncommon in the rapidly-changing Austin, Fred’s legacy still serves the city at Dagar’s Catering, operated by his descendants and still serving reportedly excellent barbecue. The old cafe is now home to Casino El Camino, one of the only genuinely pleasant bars on this stretch of Sixth.
The Sweet Van
With a custom paint job promoting Freddie’s Catering, this delivery vehicle appears to be an early-’70s model Dodge Tradesman. Since it’s a working catering van instead of a swinging mobile bachelor pad, it lacks the circular bubble window common to the shaggin’ wagons of the era — but the inside probably still smelled like meat.