On nearly any other day, the decades-old house at 92 Rainey Street is known as Bungalow, described as “an easygoing bar” that attracts regulars with music, games, and of course, plenty to drink.
But over the past two days, as Austin kicked off its famed South by Southwest festival, the watering hole on one of Austin’s hippest streets was transformed into a little piece of Fort Worth, drawing hordes of visitors with an array of signature attractions from the nation’s 15th largest city.
There was Fort Worth whiskey from the Firestone and Robertson distillery, Fort Worth cuisine served up by nationally famous chef Tim Love, Fort Worth tanginess from Mrs. Renfro’s Salsa and hours of hot licks from some of Fort Worth’s best known musical performers. Hundreds of visitors also took mock journeys into the skies aboard flight simulators set up by Fort Worth defense giants Bell and Lockheed Martin.
“I think it’s great,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price in offering her assessment of Fort Worth’s second exhibition at South by Southwest. Price, clad in jeans, a white blouse and saddle-brown Luskey’s boots, was clearly energized by the party-like atmosphere, and even cut a dance move or two with a couple of patrons.
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On Saturday, she donned cycling togs to lead an early morning 15K bike ride.
The two-day event opened Friday morning and was scheduled to run until 6 p.m. Saturday. Officials were predicting a total attendance well in excess of 3,000.
Fort Worth is at South by Southwest as part of the city’s ongoing campaign to bolster its image, looking to show off its brand to the tens of thousands of visitors who throng to Austin every year for multi-venue presentations spanning film, interactive media, music and conferences.
Known as Fort Worth on Rainey, the 2019 version was strikingly different — and, by many accounts, better. Unlike last year’s event, which was held in a much larger venue in East Austin, the two-day event on Rainey was in the heart of South by Southwest, next to the Twitter House and NBC, and was strategically positioned to snare a steady progression of street traffic.
“We have a lot to show,” said Mitch Whitten, executive vice president for marketing and strategy for Visit Fort Worth, the principle organizer for the event. Partners include the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Worth Promotion and Development Fund.
Nearly 20 badge-wearing SXSW visitors were standing in line outside the Fort Worth House more than 30 minutes before the doors opened on Friday. Crowds continued to swell throughout the day as visitors from as far away as New York — and, in at least one case, England — mingled elbow-to-elbow inside and ventured onto the bar’s backyard to soak up sunshine and booming hip-hop from a DJ. The result was a cozy congeniality that Bungalow patrons are presumably accustomed to when the downtown bar is performing its regular duties.
“This one’s amazing,” said Fort Worth soul-blues singer Abraham Alexander as he stood near the stage in the backyard hours before his scheduled Friday night performance. Alexander, who also performed in 2018, described the difference between the two events as “night and day,” saying the smaller venue this year created a more intimate atmosphere that heightened the fun.
Not surprisingly, perhaps the biggest attraction was the free samples of whiskey following a demonstration of whiskey-making techniques by representatives of Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co., which operates what it says is the biggest whiskey distillery west of the Mississippi on a former golf course where Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson once caddied.
“All right, let’s drink some whiskey,” 32-year-old head distiller Rob Arnold announced from the stage as more than two dozen spectators pressed their way toward the front. “Fort Worth whiskey,” he added.
After the demonstration, Hillary Wagner, the company’s vice president of marketing, circulated through the crowd with trays holding small samples of Firestone & Robertson bourbon and blended whiskey. Several of the visitors said the whiskey-sipping moment was one of their chief reasons for attending.
The two flight simulators inside the Fort Worth House also were a big draw. The chance to check out the Lockheed Martin F-35 simulator had Mike Meyerling of Collegeville, Pa., waiting at the front of the line on Rainey Street before the doors opened. The run down of events was advertised on programs handed out in advance.
“Any time I get to play with digital technology, I’m here,” said Meyerling, 44, a digital marketing expert.
Meyerling and other airplane buffs took turns climbing into the simulator to spend several minutes in mock combat from the same vantage point as pilots who fly the war-plane made by employees at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in west Fort Worth. “It’s great,” said Justin Goldspink, a 48-year-old lawyer from London as he climbed out of the simulator after shooting down an enemy fighter.
Play-like aviators also took a spin in helicopter simulators displayed by Fort Worth-based Bell, donning virtual reality goggles to fly over the Las Vegas strip. Corey Cannon, chief engineer of technology and innovation for Bell, said the company plans to use data gathered from the simulator rides in developing the control design of future helicopters.
“There’s been a few crashes,” Cannon mused as pretend fliers climbed in and out of the simulators. But he added: “We don’t hurt anybody in a crash.”
Jessica Spaman, an insurance employee from Grand Rapids, Mich., said she loved the ride but confessed to a near wipe-out as she was soaring above the Las Vegas glitz. “I almost took off the head of the Statute of Liberty,” she said.
Some patrons made the rounds of attractions like visitors at a carnival. William Gomez, a 28-year-old salesman from Austin and a self-described “foodie” and “B-level chef,” got some spices from chef Love’s presentation and later took a whirl on the F-35 simulator. He attended the first Fort Worth event last year and said he was eager to take in this one.
“I love to go to Fort Worth,” he said. Organizers of Fort Worth on Rainey hope legions of other SXSW visitors come away with the same feeling.