Esther’s Follies is a magical place. The interior encourages people to imagine themselves on the inside of a fishbowl. Indeed, the “Esther” in the name is a callback to Esther Williams, the campy swimmer-slash-movie starlet of the ‘50s. On a good night, the building fills to capacity with patrons, loud music and riotous laughter. On the day of my interview with Doug Ewart, the place was completely empty, and the only sound was the thunderstorm outside, fighting its way through the cracks in the ceiling and filling the trash cans below. While there’s nothing quite like the nightlife that takes place, it was almost mystical to see Esther’s during the day. There’s a magic to the comedy club that you can only truly grasp once you’re inside.
Ewart is an integral part of the magic of Esther’s—without him, there could be no show. As the musical director, he has almost complete control over the pace of the night. His job is to sit to the left of the stage, surrounded by an elaborate sound station, and transport the audience and the actors to a new place. There are elements of improv to his work: He must pay full attention to the actors on stage, playing in pace with them and sometimes helping move a scene along with music. He operates behind the scenes, and that’s just how he likes it.
“I prefer to kind of be a little hidden—I’m not the guy who’s going to stand up and take a bow,” he explained. “I’m very happy being back there and watching everyone else take their bows and knowing that I had a little something to do with that. That’s all that I need.”
Just A Small-Town Boy
Ewart grew up in the Midwest, born in Idaho Falls and raised in a small town in Missouri with a population of about 1,200 people. He knew almost every member of his graduating class. He remembers the feeling of small-town gossip, and he distinctly recalled not knowing a single gay person as he was growing up. He didn’t even know that being gay was an option, and he graduated from high school in 1987.
“It was pretty insulated,” he explained. “There was no gay material on any television show. I had never heard anything about gay people, positive or bad. I really didn’t. Sometimes you hear ‘queer’ or something like that, but you never put it together with actual sexual orientation.”
His saving grace in his very small midwestern high school was one standout teacher who taught music and theater. This teacher took Ewart and a small group of his classmates under his wing, making sure that their music and theater education went hand in hand.
“He would hold classes at seven in the morning to do college prep classes. They could clep out of their first couple of semesters of music theory in college, and that’s really awesome. At that time, most kids had no real concept of that. You weren’t taught music theory really well. So that gave me a huge jump,” Ewart explained.
He got out of town as soon as he could. College wasn’t just an option—it was a requirement. But after trying out a few different colleges, he knew that it wasn’t right for him. He was always able to get work as a piano player outside class, and the gigs would lure him away from his studies. Ewart believes that he did learn a lot while in college, but the best thing about his education was his exposure to larger towns and different people, which forced him outside his comfort zone.
His first boyfriend coincided with his escape from the Midwest: The two met through their shared love of theater. He was a piano player and a sign language teacher. The relationship lasted five years, and when it ended, Ewart decided to try his luck in Chicago, where he landed a gig as a touring piano player with Second City, a world-famous improv club.
“I was young, so it was a really exciting time in my life. At the time you realize you’re around something really cool, there’s something awesome going on and you’re a part of it and you think it’s just great, but you don’t realize that these people are going to go on to do such great things. I was pretty starstruck, but I did my thing,” Ewart said.
He had the opportunity to work around some of today’s comedic giants, like Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Amy Sedaris, sometimes performing their leftover skits and learning from Second City’s musical director at the time. He also had the opportunity to tour with troupes around the country.
“I would live in Montana for a year and Chicago for a year, and live in Montana and fly to Chicago to do gigs. I bounced around a lot that way,” he explained.
He was later recruited to move to Dallas and perform at a local comedy club. When that club was forced to shut down, Ewart simply decided to open his own.
“It was very little more than just a place with black curtains on the wall … but we did have our liquor license! Everyone just used it as their improv theater hub, and we also did a lot of standup shows. We would average ten or twelve shows a week sometimes. We hosted the 2005 Dallas comedy festival, which was the first comedy festival we had there. We had, like, sixty shows in three days.”
Ewart played the piano, sure, but he also was the publicity man and the door man and the bartender.
“I didn’t sleep. I would play piano for the show and then during intermission I’d go out and bartend and play for the rest of it. It was really fun, and we didn’t make a dime,” he laughed.
He met the owners of Esther’s around that time and got recruited to be the musical director. And the rest, as they say, is history. Ewart had arranged and participated in pageant shows when he lived in Montana (fun fact: he won Mr. Gay Montana back in his heyday), so he took some of his experiences with that and brought them to Esther’s, putting on fundraisers for AIDS Services of Austin and Out Youth.
Ewart explained that he won at the time when many people were dying from HIV and AIDS, so, like many of his co-winners and those who won before him, he chose to donate to AIDS- and HIV-related organizations. Prior to winning the title, Ewart had lost a friend to the disease, and it affected him deeply, becoming a loss that would eventually become as personal as a diagnosis of his own.
Facing HIV Head-On
Towards the end of our interview, Ewart started coughing.
“I’m trying to give up cigarettes,” he explained, incredulous. “I’m giving up cigarettes, and it’s making me cough.”
He went on to explain that he has spent the last few years of his life trying to get healthy. He has stuck to a Paleo diet, and he bikes and exercises as often as he can. Ewart has has lost more than 100 lbs over the last two years, and it all happened because of his HIV-positive diagnosis.
“I had been with a guy who later told me he was HIV positive, so I went to the doctor and got tested. They called and left a message for me to come in, and it was kind of ominous so I didn’t go back in for like two or three months. When I did, the doctor was pissed with me. It was kind of a nightmare, and it took me a few tries to find the right doctor that I jive with. I’m on my third doctor now who I really like a lot.”
Though he initially allowed the diagnosis to rock his world—he faced deep depression and anger—he is now living a healthy life and has not let being HIV positive define his life. He is still as active as ever, and he doesn’t see it as a handicap.
“My health is great, I see the doctor once every six months, but that diagnosis really spurred me to change a lot of things about my life. I certainly don’t look at it as any kind of a death sentence. I have to appreciate what I have and make the most of it. I feel very hopeful, very optimistic.”
Ewart is a vibrant person, a talented musician and an absolute staple at Esther’s Follies. The show would not be complete without his ability to think quickly on his toes—or his fingers. But even though he’s at Esther’s seven days of the week, he always makes time for himself. He loves to bike around Austin, he meditates regularly, and he often plays musical accompaniment to guided meditations. When he gets the chance, he takes weekend trips to the beach with his boyfriend. He’s also a member of what he calls a “bluegrass-slash-hobo band,” which plays at Patsy’s Cowgirl Cafe pretty regularly.
“I am by no means the most talented piano player you will find,” Ewart told me. “But I do pride myself on being easy to work with and fun. Improv is about making the people that you’re working with look good. In doing that, you make yourself look good … that’s one of the basic rules of improv. That’s what I love to do: to be the dude that can help move the scene along by improvising musically, but not too much, and making that connection with the actors in that way. What’s really cool is for about every ten improvisors out there, there’s only one musician to work with them. So I feel a little special.”