We had the good fortune of connecting with Brian Arthur and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Brian, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I took over my father’s Sports bar in Spring TX in 1999 and ran it for 3 years before turning it over to my sister. I also opened a small coffeeshop in the Houston Heights area in 2001 before opening Super Happy Fun Land in 2003. There was live music at the sportsbar and coffeeshop, but it was mostly singer songwriter type stuff. Which is fine but I was interested in hosting more diverse artistic endeavors. I wanted to open a place that would be open to eclectic types of performances that were not commercial, and not just musical performance but also plays, puppet shows, art shows, poetry, independent film, dance, and all kinds of creative expression.
What should our readers know about your business?
SHFL was starting in 2003 by Brian Arthur (Flakey) and Olivia Dvorak (Poopy). We will celebrate 18 years in operation in March 2021. We are an art and performance venue that specializes in underground performances and outsider art. On a regular basis we host bands and musical performers of all genres, art shows, plays, independent films, puppet shows, fundraisers, political events, presentations, private parties, and pretty much anything weird you can think of. The venue primarily gets by on generous donations by the patrons of our events. It also is subsidized by various for-profit businesses owned by the founders (such as Flakey’s Pizza that is connected to the back of the venue, as well as online stores that sell various items including a lot of weird vintage collectibles). We are not officially classified as a 501C3 nonprofit organization, but functionally we operate as a not-for-profit. Below is an except of a Houston Press interview from 2013 where we describe founding SHFL: “Out of all the entertainment venues in Houston, Super Happy Fun Land has got to be the weirdest. That’s meant in a good way; packed into every corner of the venue are curious odds and ends, most of them leftovers from childhoods lived in the ’80s and early ’90s. Check out the giant Cabbage Patch dolls, sold to the venue for ten dollars each by a purveyor who calls himself The Crazy Statue Guy. There are promotional stickers left behind by traveling bands galore. A burgundy kissing couch. Colorful acrylic paintings hang next to a never ending collection of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. A lunchbox, a coffeemaker, sit near yellow, blue, orange, and pink wigs. Holiday lights hang near busts of literary greats and Egyptian queens with an Obama Chia pet growing nearby. Outside, giant bas-relief sculptures of a man and a woman’s face beckon you in from the quiet part of East End. Should you choose to enter, a black and red checkerboard lobby floor gives way to cement ground and eventually, the low-slung chairs where about 100 people can watch a show on a raised stage. If you don’t fancy a show, there are couches off to the side where you can chill and drink a Lone Star. Smacked onto the walls are several handwritten posters and flyers, each with their own unique, block-letter message: “WE HAVE PIZZA!”, “SPICY VEGAN CHILI PROVIDED AS A COURTESY TO THE TOURING BANDS BUT DONATIONS ARE APPRECIATED,” Sexy Love Robot Suggests you donate at least $5.00 for these SHIRTS.” “It’s kind of a cross between a traditional venue and a DIY, anarchist venue,” says owner Brian Arthur. While most DIY-themed music venues, started by kids who are “bored,” normally fail approximately five years into their respective existences, Super Happy Fun Land will be celebrating 10 years this Saturday with a concert and party. Is this place for real? SHFL has been outfitted ironically, but hipster commentators might say no. An avant-garde homage to innocence lost, perhaps? This is untrue. The décor has no philosophical message. According to Arthur, who co-owns the place with Olivia Dvorak, they’re just a couple of artists/musicians who like stuffed animals. “We just collect a lot of crazy stuff.” This shared mind prompted the pair to open SHFL in March of 2003 at the Ashland Street Theater. “We were basically looking for a place where we could both work on our artwork and music,” said Arthur. And about that funny name? “It’s based on an SNL sketch called “Happy Fun Ball with Phil Hartman,” Arthur said. The idea to bring live music into the mix was a casual one and mainly a way of raising money to keep the lights on. However, thanks to its open door policy that allows any band of any genre to perform, they were inundated with requests for bands to put on shows. In their first month, four bands performed. By the third month, that number had grown exponentially. As the number of bands passing through grew, so did the need for more space to accommodate larger crowds. Their original space was suffering from a strange, fungus-like growth that appeared whenever it rained. And there was just one toilet for the public to share. But Arthur and Dvorak never got around to finding a bigger venue. As it would happen, the Ashland Street Theater was sold to a new landlord. who wanted to turn the space into a condo. He insisted SHFL vacate and immediately. “Do we have until March [to move out]?” Brian remembers asking. It was September then. “Oh, no, with these things, they move really fast,” replied the new landlord. By October, SHFL had packed up all of its stuffed accouterments and moved into the location at 3801 Polk St. Finding a new home would not be the end of the venue’s challenges however. Within two months of moving in, they were shut down by the city for not having an occupancy permit. Arthur and Dvorak scrambled to find an architect and the proper documents to secure one, but it mattered not. Super Happy Fun Land would remain closed for a year. In the meantime, Arthur and Dvorak made sure the bills on the property were paid, even though there was no incoming money, save from the money put in personally from full-time jobs. To raise more cash, the pair held fundraisers. Walking away was not an option. Since its reopening, SHFL has become a premiere spot for up-and-coming artists, artists of different genres and artists from different areas. “We had a guy from France,” Arthur said. “Jean Costes. His show was singing operatic comedy with a carrot up his butt and a frying pan tied to his dong.” That’s nothing. “A French woman; she was also completely naked, covered with chocolate pudding and vomiting cans of soup into a toilet that was set up on the stage.” Though he admits that Super Happy Fun Land has had a lot dirty stuff, there have been some genuinely cute acts, too. In September 2011, they hosted The Acro-Cats featuring The Rock Cats, an all-cat rock band. The cats were scheduled to play four shows that night. All four shows sold out. They’ve been back twice.” (From https://www.houstonpress.com/music/super-happy-fun-land-celebrates-a-decade-of-warping-houston-6498611 ) As far as neighbors go we used to get noise complaints at our previous location, though installing “Homasote” under our drywall cut noise output by more than 50% and drastically reduced the number of complaints. I highly recommend Homasote, it was cheap and easy to install, a great solution for noise issues. When we moved into the new much larger space we specifically chose an isolated warehouse next to a very busy railroad track and in the last 10 years have had almost no noise complaints. The capacity of the space is 300 and it is 7500 SQ Ft. When we moved to the new location we were very fortunate to have had a fullsize AMC movie theater screen and 200 AMC movie theater seats donated to us by Houston Community College. That along with a much larger performance stage and full club style PA system took the venue to the next level. Hard to calculate exactly how many performers we have had here, but definitely many thousands, so picking one from that number is pretty subjective. A few of my personal favorite musicians who’s names might be possibly recognized by someone would be Quintron, Blowfly, Carla Bouzelich, Kimya Dawson, and Dan Deacon. For every recognizable name there were hundreds of amazing performers that no one has ever heard of like The Cherry Blossoms, The Slats, Nightmare River Band, The Mathematicians, W-S Burn, Porches on the Autobahn, The Slow Poisoner, Captured by Robots, The Show is the Rainbow, Jucifer, Ooga Booga, Muzak John, Rusted Shut, and Organ Failure. Then again some of the most memorable shows were complete disasters like Cock ESP’s 15 second performance that seemed like more of an explosion than a show, or Shat with their dildo porcupine costumes. And of course those are just names, I could describe each one, and their shows were all as incredible and unique as the Jean Costes show detailed above, but really you kinda had to be there. Burnout after 17 years is a serious issue, you get really really tired of bands after the first few thousand… but I have always considered keeping Super Happy Fun Land open as a form of activism, and we are pretty dedicated to the cause. Part of it is just to be an example to other that this sort of thing can be done, and we have had several venues from all over the country come back and tell us we helped inspire them. Lots of people sincerely thanking you for your life’s work really makes it all worthwhile, but still you get tired of living your whole life in a public venue after awhile (and you are doing just that if your venue is going to make it in the long run, it takes commitment and dedication for your venue to last and be strong). Olivia wrote a song that goes “There is no Escape from the Diabolic Membership of Super Happy Fun Land Family… You can try and try it’s true, but there is no escape for you” which is her comical take on her own burnout. As for me at any rate, what else am I going to do, sit around and watch TV? If you are reading this and you don’t have a place like SHFL in your city, just go ahead and do it. If we can make it, so can you.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
The Menil Collection complex is a must see for anyone interested in art. It is one of the largest private art collection in the world. It is free to visit and features works by Yves Tanguy, René Magritte, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Vija Celmins and Cy Twombly, Jr. Houston is an amazing city for food. We are the most culturally diverse city in the US, and the area restaurants reflect that rich diversity. Authentic Mexican food would be my first choice to take someone from far away, If the menus are in Spanish (and the clientele and staff are speaking Spanish) and the food seems irrationally inexpensive you are in the right place. If the menu offers kimchi on their tacos or some other pretentious fusion food leave immediately. BBQ would also be a good idea to show tourists, just make sure that if it is a chain they don’t have more than 2 or 3 locations and you should be ok. NASA if they are into science. Notsuoh, Avant Garden, and Super Happy Fun Land for weird nighttime entertainment.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
There are many people who influenced and helped make Super Happy Fun Land but my primary collaborator and motivator is my partner Oliva Dvorak.