No More Games
Iconic little Austin dive bar faces uncertain future as shutdown continues
Editor's note: The original version of this article mischaracterized the relationship between Terry Gaona and Dale Watson as well as the original launch date of Chicken Shit Bingo. It has been updated.
On a recent Sunday in October, Terry Gaona was joined on a livestream by country musician Johnny McGowan, plus her three beloved pet hens, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Patsy Cline. Together, the bare-bones team carried on Austin’s weirdest tradition, albeit for a virtual audience.
As owner of the iconic The Little Longhorn Saloon, Gaona is also the steward for one of the city's cultural touchstones: Chicken Shit Bingo. On Facebook Live, the saloon’s atypical flagship Sunday event functions much as it does in person. McGowan strums and croons while the hens bob rhythmically around a large bingo board. On whichever number the chicken decides to relieve itself, that corresponding ticket-holder receives a prize.
What is noticeably missing, however, are the large crowds of happy-go-lucky bar-goers sucking down Lone Star beers while cheering on the musicians and hens in equal measure, a spectacle that regulars affectionately call “Sunday church.” Like many of us, Gaona has weathered both a financially and emotionally devastating 2020, made worse by indefinite shuttering of the Little Longhorn due to COVID-19.
Chicken Shit Bingo was first introduced in 2000 by music star Dale Watson, and has since become an indelible part of Austin culture. While the saloon’s roots stretch back over a century, it was a slew of 2000s TV travel shows, magazine editorials, and general word-of-mouth advertising that elevated the event — and, by association, the saloon — to its current cult status.
“Ginny [Kalmbach], who owned the bar then famously said, ‘[Chicken Shit Bingo] will never last.’ Here we are, 20-plus years later,” recounts Gaona, who pulled shifts as a bartender before purchasing the saloon in 2013 along with Watson and her husband.
Watson eventually sold his share of the bar in 2016 and famously moved to Tennessee in 2018. Gaona, meanwhile, has continued to work to adapt the operations to a constantly changing city, adding new beverage options and moving bingo to the parking lot to service growing crowds. And things seemed to be paying off. Last fall, pop star Joe Jonas joined Matthew McConaughey for a Chicken Shit game during Jonas' Austin tour stop. The visit was even chronicled in the Quibli travel series Cup of Joe.
”Then, right as we were hitting our stride, COVID struck,” Gaona says.
Since closing its doors back in March, Little Longhorn Saloon has like many iconic Austin dive-bars/venues, been left with little recourse. As other establishment reopen, sometimes using a TABC loophole that allows bars to reopen as restaurants, the iconic dive bar has remained closed even as similar operations reopen.
“We don’t feel that Austin really cares about us," says Gaona. "It's like they're using us as a scapegoat, saying ‘you can't open because people don't know how to sit down.’ Well, people followed our rules those two weeks we were reopened in June because they wanted us to survive.”
Gaona says operations like hers are being strong-armed into reopening as restaurants, which makes little sense in her current financial situation. ”When I've already been closed as long as we have, I don't need to pay you a further $3,000- $9,000 to get a restaurant license to sell you a bag of chips. You can catch COVID just as easily at a restaurant.”
Still, Gaona is aware she’s not the only one suffering, which is why she’s also opened her virtual platform to local musicians. “There’s nowhere else for these bands to play. If I can help them, it helps me.”
She's also keeping the saloon's spirit alive with a mobile bingo operation. Patrons can book the setup, which brings Gaona and two of her trusty hens for socially distanced events such as a pop-up operation she held recently for the Real Housewives of Dallas and a forthcoming Halloween celebration at Celis Brewing.
Even with such ingenuity, however, the saloon’s future remains anything but certain. Right now, Gaona says she’s focused firmly on spreading the word about her operation's dire financial situation. At the end of a recent virtual Chicken Shit Bingo, Gaona reminded viewers they can contribute monetarily at the Little Longhorn’s GoFundMe page, emphasizing that any amount helps.
“I want this institution to live on past my time [and] for many generations to come," she says. "We’re looking forward to having everyone back safely, and when the day comes, my chickens and I have our masks ready to go!”