James White's Family Plans To Continue Operating Austin's Broken Spoke Dance Hall Despite Hurdles
James White had an infectious personality. From the big smile to the shiny sequined shirts to the jokes, very little changed through the years. That was part of what he brought to the Broken Spoke and part of the appeal.
When James and his wife, Annetta, opened the dance hall in 1964, they created a critical piece of Austin’s live music puzzle: unapologetic, traditional country. It served as the setting for part of Willie Nelson’s Honeysuckle Rose and Dolly Parton’s Wild Texas Wind. The Broken Spoke was featured on the cover of George Strait’s most recent album, Honk Tonk Time Machine, an homage to the place that helped launch his career in the 1970s.
The set-it-and-forget-it approach to decor – and maintenance – only added to its charm. The Broken Spoke feels like a place that has always been there and will always be, no matter what.
That's why there was a level of concern among fans – and critics of Austin’s rapid redevelopment – when White died of congestive heart failure Sunday.
His daughter, Ginny White-Peacock, said she's heard the rumbling.
“Like, 'Oh, I bet his widow sells it,’ and stuff like that," she said. "I just don't want people to worry about it, because the part they forget is that we loved him so much and we love the Broken Spoke so much. It's been part of my life for 45 years, so I mean, I don't want to see it go.”
White-Peacock grew up at the Spoke with her sister Terri. Now, they help run it. They'd like to keep the family business going – assuming outside forces will allow it.
Eight years ago, Austin's ongoing facelift appeared to doom the Broken Spoke when the land it has sat on for generations was sold to developers. The dance hall received a reprieve after the new owners pitched the idea of integrating it into the development of apartment buildings on either side.
Then the property was sold again. The current owner, CWS Capital Partners, is honoring the long-term lease White signed back then, with renewable options.
But the biggest threat to the Broken Spoke is not White’s death or development. It's COVID-19.
“With all the struggles with COVID, they were spending probably, you know, upwards of $20,000 or more a month out of their savings to keep the Broken Spoke open, without any income [for] at least three or four months,” White-Peacock said.
She said when Broken Spoke was able to open as a restaurant, the family was able to get some business again, but it was not quite the same.
“We’re just trying to weather the storm,” she said. “That’s what my dad wanted. We had talked about possibly closing, because he is getting older, because of the COVID time, because we’re like – How long can we keep paying out of pocket to stay open?”
Closing due to the pandemic was not what James White wanted, and now his wife and daughters have a new reason to keep the doors open.
“You know, he just wanted to be back up there with all the people, and get to talk to people and welcome everyone like he liked to do," White-Peacock said. "I even spoke to my mother this morning and, yeah, the plan is to keep it open. We want to see it back in its glory days, you know, again especially for him.”
And White’s shiny, sequined shirts will even get some new uses.
“Some of my nieces were like, ‘Oh, we should all wear his sparkly shirts to the funeral,’" White-Peacock said. "And so they were all back there looking through all his stuff, and I just thought about him fretting because people are all over his stuff. He was very particular about his things. But, he would probably get a big kick out of it, seeing everybody being James White, since he look he loved being James White quite a bit.”
The public viewing for White is Thursday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Harrell Funeral Home, not too far from the landmark he built with his family for nearly 60 years. He’ll be buried Sunday during a private ceremony on the family ranch.