Austin (CNN) — “Come on and take a free ride” as we tour Austin’s neighborhoods in one of the coolest self-guided tours of the city. It won’t exactly transport you to the last day of school on May 28, 1976, but it will take you to parts of the city you wouldn’t otherwise see.
Richard “Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” was released 30 years ago and became an instant stoner cult hit, especially among young (at the time) Gen X audiences. It’s a film about nothing and everything, engagingly hypnotic and quotably funny. It also launched the careers of Ben Affleck, Parker Posey and one University of Texas student who looked the most at ease traversing his local city, Matthew McConaughey.
I’ve been to Austin half a dozen times but during the most recent, instead of heading downtown, I turned right out of the airport and was soon driving past fields and a huge rodeo complex with two large Ferris wheels. I saw roadrunners (the official state bird of Texas) and steers grazing with long horns stretching wider than my rental car. Although much of this location scouting tour takes place in the city’s suburbs, I saw Texas for the first time in a visit to its capital.
“Alright, alright, alright,” there’s a lot to uncover on a tour of “Dazed” shooting locations, so where do we begin?
Given the spread of the stops north and south of downtown, you’ll need a car to reach them. Trying to do them chronologically in the film would require a lot of back and forth so the route here is largely north to south, starting with one of the most iconic spots in the film, the park where the big party takes place.
‘Who put the keg all the way out here in the woods?’
Because the film offers no identifiable landmarks (except a moontower that was built just for the shoot), there’s some online debate about whether Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park (6620 Blue Bluff Rd.) is the film’s keg party location. But the best evidence fans have sleuthed is that you can see the park’s Decker Creek Power Station in a background shot in a making-of documentary on the film’s Criterion Collection DVD.
It’s a lovely park. Very quiet and along the edge of a lake and prairie preserve. I walked through paths lined with prickly pear cacti, looking for something concrete to tie it to the film. The closest I got was beer and food trash in a bramble of shrubs – evidence of someone’s recent party. The gatehouse security told me the park stays open until 10 p.m. and visitors are allowed to bring beer in.
If you do choose to party in the park, do so responsibly and also consider a stop at a local convenience store for a sixer of the popular and locally brewed McConauhaze — a Hazy IPA inspired by the actor — or Lone Star, enjoyed less responsibly by the teenagers in the movie.
The only Austin park with one of the city’s remaining moonlight towers is Zilker Park (2100 Barton Springs Rd.), closer to downtown. They didn’t film “Dazed” there but it is an opportunity to walk right up to the base of the massive light.
The city’s moontowers were built in the late 1800s, as they were in other American cities, which didn’t preserve them. They were erected as a larger scale solution to individual street lights. In 1976, the year “Dazed” is set, the moonlight towers were inducted into the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1995, two years after the film released, Austin’s towers were restored with original components.
‘I swore to God I’d never come to a Top Notch.’
Looking more like a set out “American Graffiti” — arguably the spiritual godfather of “Dazed” — Top Notch Burgers (7525 Burnet Rd.) is a 1950s-era drive-in where a number of principal characters get a bite to fortify themselves for the long night ahead.
After parking in the car hop and ordering a very un-1976 veggie burger and sweet potato fries through the squawk box next to my window, I heard the restaurant’s outdoor speakers play the disco hit “Car Wash” by Rose Royce, followed by Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way,” both hits in the year of our “Dazed,” 1976.
The burger and fries, served in white paper sleeves which poorly held ketchup, were still top notch. They were only bested by the strawberry shake I ordered and the general ambiance of this one and only culinary pilgrimage site.
‘Don’t let the fact that you won’t be able to sit down all summer affect your game.’
Next stop is the suburbs, first to the very baseball field where freshman Mitch Kramer pitches while seniors Benny, Melvin and O’Bannion taunt him from the outfield with paddles in hand. It’s located in the Beverly S. Sheffield Northwest District Park (7000 Ardath St.) but to get to the field, enter at N. Park Dr. off of Shoal Creek Blvd.
Mitch could have walked to his game. His house (6806 Pioneer Place) is an 8 minute stroll. Also a few streets away is Carl Burnett’s house (6409 Wilbur Dr.) where Affleck’s Fred O’Bannion stares down the barrel of a gun held by Carl’s mom when O’Bannion tries to paddle the freshman Carl.
Remember, these are private residences, so be respectful of owners’ privacy.
‘Are you cool, man?’
There is an actual plaque on the Violet Crown Shopping Center (6600 N Lamar Blvd.) that certifies it as the location cinematically known as the Emporium in “Dazed and Confused.”
You can’t play pool or expect to hear Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” playing in this spot now, but you can sit down and get a beer and ribs inside one building in the strip mall: Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew.
Across the street is a garage belonging to Cash Champions (821 Brentwood St.), which fans will recognize as the spot where Ben Affleck’s character O’Bannion gets his comeuppance. Sadly, the convenience store across from the Emporium where Mitch “picks up a sixer” is now gone.
‘Wipe that face off your head.’
While the senior boys paddle freshmen, the senior girls have their own ritual humiliation ceremony in the parking lot of the Americana Movie Theater (2200 Hancock Dr.) that has now been converted into a branch of the city library system. The old theater sign remains.
Parker Posey stood on this sacred spot hurling insults while her friends baptized freshman girls in condiments. Some of the guys look on, including the angsty Mike Newhouse (played by Adam Goldberg), whose house (2513 Great Oaks Parkway) is just a few blocks away.
A mile south of Mike’s house is a Shell gas station and convenience store (4001 Medical Parkway) where an angry resident pulls a gun on Mitch and three seniors for playing baseball with his mailbox.
‘That’s what I’m talkin’ about, man.’
The movie’s Lee High School is actually Bedichek Middle School (6800 Bill Hughes Rd.) south of downtown. I pulled up as Spotify played Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” as in the opening sequence of the movie.
It was the weekend when I visited, so I couldn’t go inside the school but was free to walk around and look in the windows. I saw the same patriotic silhouette murals seen in the film. I stood on the spot where Pinky confronts the football coach at the very end of the film. The school looks like it hasn’t seen a renovation since the mid-’70s.
The film’s middle school, where Mitch and Carl finish their last day of school, was actually filmed at Everette L. Williams Elementary School, located a half hour north of Austin in the town of Georgetown.
The most soulful scene in the film is where our main characters meet up at the high school football field, reflecting on the meaning of their lives so far.
‘You just gotta keep livin’, man. L-I-V-I-N.’
Bedichek Middle School doesn’t have a stadium but a short drive from there is the filming location for that scene. The Toney Burger Activity Center (3200 Jones Rd.) is part of the Austin Independent School District and open to the public. While two actual senior citizens did laps around the track, I walked onto the cinematic hallowed ground of the 50 yard line.
It is here were McConaughey’s Wooderson reminds them to “keep livin’” and Randy “Pink” Floyd cynically asks his friends that if he starts “referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.”
Our high school “daze” may not equate to the best years of our lives, but the important role they play in our lives can’t be underestimated. There’s a reason high school coming-of-age stories have been a staple of American cinema since the early ‘80s, arguably culminating in the best of this genre with Linklater’s film in the early ‘90s, set in the mid-’70s. We keep getting older, but these stories stay the same age.
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