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Places

No Bar Keeps It Real Like Donn’s Depot

July 12, 2022

Story: Laurel Miller

photo: Drew Anthony Smith

Places

No Bar Keeps It Real Like Donn’s Depot

July 12, 2022

Story: Laurel Miller

photo: Drew Anthony Smith

Equal parts honky-tonk, dance hall and derelict cocktail lounge, the iconic Austin piano bar and its regulars are icons of another era in a rapidly changing city.

To the uninitiated, Donn’s Depot appears to be little more than a rambling, nearly dilapidated hodgepodge of structures—including several cobbled-together rail cars—on Austin’s sleepy west side. A black-and-white sign rises from the parking lot, describing Donn’s as a “piano bar and saloon,” which is entirely accurate, even if it doesn’t quite capture all that lies within these weathered wood walls.

In fact, Donn’s melds the enthusiastic rowdiness of a honky-tonk with the good old Texas courtliness of a dance hall, in a setting best described as a derelict cocktail lounge. “There is something in the air here… or maybe it’s in the carpet,” reads the website. 

And while longtime owner Donn Adelman has, in fact, replaced said carpet at least thrice, it’s hard to erase five decades of history and spilled beer. 

Inside, the light is dim, even at the bar’s 2 p.m. opening time. By 2:30, the happy hour regulars will have arrived, holding court at the elevated round table near the front door. At 4 p.m., one of the longtime bartenders—like Tammi Schissler, who has worked there for 32 years—will turn on the flat-screen TV, signaling the start of Jeopardy. Even without the soothing cadence of the late Alex Trebek, the game show attracts a rabid crowd, bellowing answers over drafts of Shiner Bock or Gin & Tonics.

By evening, Schissler or her counterparts—all of whom share tenures of a decade or longer—will have scrawled “Reserved” on a guest check and placed it on the round table, ensuring her evening regulars get the same seats they’ve occupied for the last 20, 30, 40 years. 

“Tammi is the brains of this place,” says Amy Shipherd, who has been coming to Donn’s since the late 1970s. “But Donn, [his wife] Arleen and [son and general manager] Matt are the heart,” she adds. “They’ve created a home for so many people with this place.”

In 1972, the bar’s founder, Bob Ogden, bought a 19th-century wooden train depot just north of Austin and relocated it to what was, at the time, a seedy, sparsely populated stretch just off the Texas 1 Loop. 

Originally called McNeil Depot, the bar had one of the first mixed-drink licenses in Travis County, which served as a built-in marketing tool. But Ogden had another draw, in the form of local musician and Goodyear tire salesman Donn Adelman. A gifted pianist and native Austinite, Adelman had been playing gigs around town from his vast repertoire, including songs from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard and Elvis. The combination cemented the Depot’s reputation as the liveliest dance floor in town.

A year after opening, Ogden added two rail cars. A caboose was retrofitted to house the ladies’ restroom and painted with circusworthy red and white stripes, which hasn’t deterred graffiti in the form of ditties like, “Roses are red, violets are blue, vodka costs less, than dinner for two.” The train cupola was left intact, its built-in foot holds and “stripper” pole providing endless photo ops for drunk patrons. 

Elsewhere, every available wall at Donn’s is plastered with memorabilia, from train souvenirs to the inevitable velvet Elvis tapestry to dozens of photos of Adelman, the staff and patrons. A mannequin named Sheila lives near the bar, her attire changing with the season and occasion, while remnants of holidays past remain: Strings of lights, tinsel strands, ornaments and metallic bells hang, and a faded fake-evergreen garland adorns the backbar. 

“Bob always told me, ‘Never move a cobweb in this place,” says Adelman, who took over the bar and changed its name to Donn’s Depot in 1978. “And I haven’t.” The only additions are framed photos and brass plaques commemorating the dearly departed.

The block of West Fifth Street that Donn’s occupies is now populated by million-dollar lofts, live-work spaces and a Jaguar–Range Rover dealership. Push open the bar’s nondescript wooden door, however, and it’s like you’ve been teleported to a different era entirely.

On a recent night, in between sets by Donn & The Station Masters, a trio of regulars dished on geriatric celebrity status, canine birthday parties and how Donn’s manages to maintain the status quo amid rampant gentrification.

Donns Depot Austin
Amy Shipherd and Louise (Shipherd’s dog, a Coton de Tuléar)

What are you drinking?
Well, it’s whatever they bring me. It’s usually a fruit thing … with vodka. I generally close the evening with a Depot Coffee [Frangelico, Baileys, coffee].

You grew up in a small town in Northeast Texas. What brought you to Austin?
One of my many marital mistakes.

When did you discover Donn’s?
It must have been the late ’70s, because you were still allowed to smoke. Sometimes the dance floor would be so smoky, you couldn’t see what was in front of you.

It would be impolite to ask a lady her age, but that would make you…
Are you allowed to write, “I’m giving you the finger”?

What was it about Donn’s that made you start coming here regularly?
It’s a good place to dance, the music is always stellar, and for the most part the men are polite. It sounds trite, but this place really does feel like home. I can’t dance anymore, after a disastrous back surgery. I come for the music and the company, and I always sit with Shelly.

Donn’s doesn’t allow dogs unless they’re service animals, so how did Louise bypass that rule?
Well, about seven summers ago, some woman scolded me about leaving her in the car—the windows were all down—and we got into it. [Bartender] Michelle came out and told me I could bring Louise in, and that was that. We even had her fifth birthday party here. Two lovely young men made a throne for her, and there were dog-shaped pillows and bone-shaped sandwiches. It was an extraordinary party. 

Has Donn’s changed in any tangible way since you first started coming here?
It hasn’t changed much, other than the clientele. It’s only changing because the world is changing, right outside that door. Austin has changed so much, all these giant buildings going up. Most of the iconic old [bars and music venues] are gone. Donn’s is pure Austin. I can’t imagine it being anywhere else in the world.

During the pandemic, Donn’s was saved from permanent closure thanks to a GoFundMe. What do we collectively lose when places like Donn’s go under? 
It would be devastating if Donn’s closed. We would lose a zillion friends, some of them with… unique qualities. This place is “Keep Austin Weird” in a nutshell.

Donns Depot Austin
Sheldon “Shelly” Kantor, aka “Chick Magnet”

When exactly did you become the Chick Magnet?
Shelly: It was about nine years ago; my friend Amy here came up with it. I’ll let her tell it. She’s the one who got me all of these T-shirts. 

Amy: Well, every time we’d be sitting here, all of these young men would come up and ask him to dance with their wives or girlfriends. Imagine, all these cute girls, married to these poor duds who couldn’t dance. Anyway, I said, “Shelly, you’re just a chick magnet.” And that’s how it started. I’ve commissioned T-shirts for him from various local artists, but they’re not for sale. And I’ve had a lot of people ask.

Shelly: I can’t even go to the supermarket or any place without someone yelling out, “Hey, Chick Magnet!”

Well, there are worse things. What’s a typical night for you at Donn’s?
I park myself at my table—it used to be [the Ogdens’] table. I have my Dos Equis, and I see who’s around. I can see everything from this seat.

What led you to Donn’s in the first place?
I moved here from [Brooklyn,] New York in 1999. I used to hang out at the senior center because they had dances every night. One of my partners said, “Let’s go to Donn’s.” It was 10 p.m. I kinda liked it, and I said to myself, “I’ll have to come back here sometime.” I’ve been a regular for about 16 years. Nothing stops me from dancing if I’m healthy and my legs hold out.

What role has Donn’s played in your life?
Coming to Donn’s opened me up. I was very shy growing up; at parties I wouldn’t talk to girls. Now, when I see a young woman on the dance floor who knows what she’s doing, I go get her.

Well, you’re the Chick Magnet, after all.
I’m not a vulture; I would never approach a woman who’s coupled off. But if they ask me to dance, I’ll never turn ’em down.

These kids, most of them don’t know how to dance. They jump around on the floor, spill their drinks. I’ll show you how to two-step, but probably you’ll be back to doing what you do, jumping around like a bunch of kangaroos… I’m not a dang instructor. But I’ll help them.

You keep coming back, every night. What is it about this place? 
It’s the camaraderie. I’m here to have a good time. I spend more time here than my apartment.

What I have trouble with now is this madhouse here (gestures to dozens of frat bros amassed at the bar). It used to be an older local crowd, but it’s totally different now. After the coronavirus, you got this influx of new people.

Kids these days.
All I can say is, don’t get old. You’re not gonna like it.

Donns Depot Austin
Don Emmons, aka “Winker Withaneye”

How long have you been coming here?
Since 1995. I fell in love with Donn’s at first sight. Even then, it was family-like, with all different kinds of people, of different ages. I still find it fascinating.

What’s the story behind your nickname?
I’ve been “Winker” for a long time because I’m a photographer. The “Withaneye” came from Chris Gage [a musician who performs at Donn’s]. I had a friend from East Texas with the heaviest accent, and he just couldn’t pronounce “Winker.” It always came out, “Wanker.” I’d respond that it was Winker, “Withani.” Because of my profession, Chris said it was really Winker “Withaneye,” and it stuck. The only time it changed was when I detached my retina and had to wear an eye patch. Then it became “With One Eye.” 

Every time you walk in the door, the entire bar shouts, “Hello, Winker!” What’s that about?
Chris started it. The whole schtick revolves around him stopping whatever he’s playing when he sees me coming through the door and telling the audience to say hi. I respond with, “Hi, everybody.” Now, Donn and the other bands do it, too.

What’s your drink of choice?
Water. I don’t drink alcohol anymore.

I got real sick about four years ago and had to make a bunch of changes to my lifestyle, including giving up drinking. When I got out of the hospital, one of the musicians and his wife took me in for six months. That whole experience made me realize just how much my friends—many of them from Donn’s—mean to me. I don’t have kids, or much family left, and they really looked after me.

That’s an incredible story. But it’s also on par for Donn’s, which has a long history of helping staff and patrons in need, right?
Definitely. It’s closed on Sundays unless there’s a tribute to someone who’s passed, or a fundraiser for a charity or a specific person. Talk about family.

Seven nights a week, you’re out at other venues taking pictures, but you always end up here. Why?
Donn’s is a life force, and each night has its own persona, so to speak. It depends on what musicians are playing, and midweek, you also get the service industry folks coming in for post-shift drinks. When you walk in and it’s slow, it’s like being transported back 25, 30 years. When it’s busy, it’s like, “Holy crap. This place is packed with young people. Who are they, and what are they doing in my bar?”

But when they get it, it’s beautiful. I’ll give them a tour and explain all the photos and other landmarks and show them the ladies’ room. When young people understand this place, it’s so inspiring to realize that [Donn’s] can continue. The flip side is when they don’t get it, and you want to just kick them.

Do you have a favorite memory?
Jerry Jeff Walker [the late country-folk singer] used to come in and sing with Chris, just for the fun of it. He was my idol when I was a kid. I mean, “Mr. Bojangles”? Over the years, I was fortunate to become friends with him, and we hung out at Donn’s. Driving and getting him home safely was something that made me feel so good.

What would you like your legacy at Donn’s to be?
Well, I’ve taken a lot of the pictures that are on the walls. Maybe just a little plaque saying I helped contribute to the joint? It would be quite an honor.

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