How a Continuing Studies Program Led to “Urban Cowboy”

Sometimes when we tell this story, we realize it’s kind of a “six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon” tale. But we tell it nonetheless because it’s just plain fun to do so.

From the 1970s off and on through the mid 1990s, Continuing Studies offered the very well regarded Rice University Publishing Program. It was an intensive four-week program – a full immersion into the worlds of books and magazines, designed to help recent college graduates and older career changers get a good grounding in publishing.

Texas Monthly magazine founding publisher and editor, Mike Levy and Bill Broyles respectively, directed the magazine portion of the program for a time in the 70s. In 1978 they invited Clay Felker, editor and publisher of Esquire magazine, to speak at the program. To give Felker a look at Texas nightlife, Levy and Broyles took him to Gilley’s Club, then a vast honky-tonk in neighboring Pasadena with country bands, lots of dancing, a mechanical bull and scores of urban cowboys and cowgirls on the prowl.

Intrigued, Felker called writer Aaron Latham at 3:00 a.m. to tell him to get down to Houston immediately to write an article about what he had just witnessed. Latham’s account, “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit” came out in Esquire’s September 1978 issue. Paramount Pictures quickly bought the rights, and work on the movie “Urban Cowboy” began that December, with John Travolta cast as the lead.

When the movie was released in 1980, the urban-cowboy phenomenon took off. Mechanical bulls were installed in clubs all over the country, western clothing became de rigueur, and country music found a mainstream audience…

…all because of Continuing Studies (wink).

To remind you of the glory that was “Urban Cowboy” we found this reel of highlights on YouTube from the Austin Film Society:

Click on image to start the video.

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