The “Rocket Room 6” sign outside East Austin bar The Brixton lasted roughly two and a half days, and one of those saw it covered in spray paint with the bar’s original name tagged in one corner.
A little further west and north, the Metal and Lace name and sign has stuck (for now, at least) at the former Headhunters bar and live music club on Red River, and oversized clock dials and other steampunk-themed décor has replaced the space’s former tiki-punk look.
Whether or not either watering hole was truly saved by visits from the Spike TV reality show Bar Rescue will be decided in the coming months, but both were drastically changed in recent weeks while getting lots of time in the spotlight.
“The rumor I heard was that everything they did with all the work they did here was something close to $90,000 in improvements,” said Tim Lupa, who has co-owned The Brixton with his wife Sara for a year and a half. “Plus, I’m essentially getting a one-hour commercial for my bar running on cable right before South By Southwest. How valuable is that?”
That “commercial” will come in the form of the show that chronicles the makeover of Lupa’s bar, which began a little more than a week ago when production crews began filming footage of the East Sixth St. spot that had been selected with Headhunter’s from a field of five Austin-area bars. Both bars will be included in the show's third season, which begins airing in February.
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s watched the previous two seasons of the popular program, but the filming unfolded with such prescribed precision that calling it a reality show seems an awfully big stretch.
“They really do want to help us, along with doing what they need for their show, and they kept in touch while they still had crews in town after the relaunch to see if there’s anything else we needed them to do.” - Tim Lupa
Lupa said the crews filming their initial visit to The Brixton limited how many customers could come in, to make the bar appear more desperate for clientele than it really is. And to make the bar’s staff appear overmatched, producers then later flooded the place with customers who were instructed to order complex drinks all in a rush.
“They wanted to make it look really bad for the show so it would seem more dramatic when they redid the place,” Lupa said.
Following the arrival of show host and bar industry expert Jon Taffer and another made-for-TV “stress test” night, crews took to overhauling the bar inside and out, replacing its entire electrical system (its single biggest problem, Lupa said) among other infrastructure improvements, redecorating, adding a new beverage menu and giving The Brixton its one-night-only new name.
“The electrical improvements were the biggest thing because we always blew the power whenever we added something, so that’s a life saver for us,” he said. “They really do want to help us, along with doing what they need for their show, and they kept in touch while they still had crews in town after the relaunch to see if there’s anything else we needed them to do.”
The Brixton’s TV bow that was filmed on Sunday night had lots of Hollywood pomp, like a bikini-clad stilt walker and similarly clothed colleagues getting the lined up crowd to cheer before the doors opened. There was also Taffer, Lupa and other employees filming a series of “Isn’t this great!?” spots inside the bar that was suddenly bustling and raking in cash, thanks to cocktails that cost $7 or more each.
Production staff on hand Sunday night said Austin was something of an antagonistic city compared to other rescue spots currently in production, with locals treating them with hostility for trying to put a Hollywood imprint on the nightlife scene that draws visitors from all over the world. And Lupa said rumors of details about the bar's revamp — including the name "Up On 6th" that was scrapped for "Rocket Room 6" at the last minute because of gossip all over the city — nearly caused the show to cancel production in favor of a backup location in San Antonio.
With the cameras gone, the show's fairy dust has mostly been brushed off of both locations. Lupa and his staff brought Brixton signage back almost immediately after the cameras stopped rolling — a large model rocket installed on its roof is headed toward fellow East Sixth spot Sputnik — and the enhanced cocktail selections are now part of a more typical neighborhood bar menu.
At Metal and Lace, the scene has returned to the same emphasis on live music (punk, metal and rockabilly especially) and shot-and-a-beer offerings that were in effect before the Bar Rescue visit. The lasting changes will be a new sound system, more open floor plan and a cleaner look from a makeover that production crews said saw them fumigate the space three times to combat rodents.
Owner Steve Ricci said he and his staff haven’t decided whether the Metal and Lace name will remain for very long (“Clockworks” is a rumored possible name, to play off of the clock-themed décor the show added), and that not enough time has passed to determine how much of a boost the show’s visit will give to the club situated one one of Austin’s live music corridors.
While the name and steampunk aesthetic raised a lot of local eyebrows once word got around, it hasn’t scared away fans of the club. On a recent Monday night, roughly two weeks after its overhaul and relaunch, the tiny club had about 50 customers drinking and dancing while rockabilly band the Pickled Punks performed on stage.
Longtime customer George Pedraza said he and other Headhunters loyalists were briefly worried about what might become of the bar, but he’s been reassured by the continued focus on the music he’s enjoyed there since the mid-2000s.
“I was worried that they might become just an industrial and goth place when I heard the name, but it hasn’t really changed because this place is so ingrained as far its clientele,” he said. “The sound system is great now, they opened the place up, gave it a real professional bar area for the drinks, and I’m glad, because this place is like an institution.”