Surely this was just another stunt, another outrageous gag by the folks at Gilley's, the crown rhinestone of Texas honky-tonks.
Yet here they were, 13 shotgun fillies lined up like nervous Miss Americas for the Dolly Parton look-alike contest in Gilley's, the world's largest "country" club, and no one here plays golf.
You can ride an electric bucking bull, meaner than any one that ever saw hay, or engage in a friendly, manly punch out at Gilley's, but here in Pasadena, the "other Houston," the accent is real and it is on country.
For Gilley's and Pasadena are not the home of the urban Houston newcomers, the lawyers and oilmen and other professionals in pinstriped suits and club ties who run the sleek steel and glass architectural wonders of this city and who think country club is River Oaks.
This is the stomping ground of the large and genuine blue-collar working class of drugstore cowboys imitated by the white-collar weekend Westerners who spend the rest of the week looking down their noses at Pasadena.
They come here by the hundreds every night, the tens of thousands every year for what they collectively agree is the best country music, the best people, the best times in a cavernous three-ring circus of a honky-tonk so well run they don't even need to protect the performers from audience violence.
It attracts a 16-year-old "fixin' to divorce my husband" after a year of marriage as well as a 56-year-old widower who got tired of sitting home alone after his wife died in April. Their lives are like country songs, or country songs are like their lives.
Gilley's can seat 4,500 to them - packed 5,500 in one night for Willie Nelson. It's 3.2 acres under one roof including the dance floor, the dozens of pool tables, the gross of pinballs and other assorted entertainments, like the electric bucking bull surrounded with tattered mattresses and the punching machine where you can test your fist and harm only yourself.
"Ye hand gits so sore ye can't put it in yer pocket," says Johnny Big John) Knotts, a heavy equipment operator after whapping the KO Machine.
"People come here from all over the world expecting a lot, and it's more than what they expected," says Mickey Gilley, the singer who made his name and gave it to Gilley's. He had the hit "The Girls All Look Better at Closing Time," and adds, "It's where the cowboys come to pick up the girls and the girls come to pick up the guys."
"I reckon you could say that," says Cindy Smith, the soon-to-be divorcee riding a rail near the KO Machine. She is dressed in zebra print with see-through sleeves and plunging neckline and is somewhat disappointed that the 18-year-old cutoff kept her out of the Dolly Parton competition.
She is on one of her five night-a-week visits to Gilley's, and adds, "I have been to every club in Houston, Tex., and Gilley's is the best place to have a party. There's a little rock, a little roll and a lot of country. This here's the best place to come to.
"There's old, young, middle-aged, and still it's a place to party. I have came here ever since I was 7 years old, and you can do whatever you want to as long as you behave . . .
"I was raised hard. My parents are divorced, and when I was 12 my mother sat me down and told me everything, everything about life." So she was married at 15 - met her husband at Gilley's.
As for the men now, you "you meet 'em, have a good time and they might call you the next day. They're gentlemen."
A rather fitting place then, Gilley's was, to crown the look-alike for the current queen of country, the woman who gave us "Here You Come Again" and "Reason To."
So on Tuesday night the Firebirds and Trans Ams and pickups were crowding in on the expansive and rutted dirt parking lot that surrounds Gilley's, a venture that is perhaps as profitable as the oil wells pumping through the night only a few blocks away. Mickey Gilley says the owners have been offered $2.5 million - and turned it down.
They opened Gilley's in 1971, or what was the first part of it, with seating for 750. They later added the wing with the bucking bull and still later the wing with the pizza and barbecue food stand. What started out as a dance hall had become an incredible barn of a place, or perhaps three places.
The crowd is as apt to be drawn here for long neck beer night or Willie Nelson; ladies' night or Mickey Gilley himself performing, or any other gimmick, like Dolly Parton look-alike night.
"I walk down the street and people think I'm Dolly Parton," says Beverly Spraggins, a 33-year old Pasadena bartender.
"What would a mother think of a daughter being in a contest?" asked Spraggins' mother, Leola Heyduke, who works at Charlie's Liquors, as she pulls on a Millers. "I think she's beautiful. She's got Dolly's cheekbones, eyes, nose and her [bosom]."
Gilley's is unusually calm. No one is on the bucking bull. No one is punching the KO Machine. A girl from Brooklyn shoots pool with a cowboy in black. The contestants are called to the stage. They are introduced, and the men crowd closer. Each is asked to give her occupation and reason for entering; Toni Lively, 28, self described "part-time vocalist and part-time bartender," draws a cheer when she says exactly where she thought it would be a kick.
Each contestant is singled out for applause. The judges scratch pencils on their papers. "It's what they look like compared to Dolly," says judge Wayne Edwards, RCA Record's man for country and western.
Then the judges retire to deliberate. Soon they return, and once again the hopefuls line up. Second place, $150, goes to Darla Niekamp, 32, a nurse who says she was mobbed in Canada two weeks ago by people thinking she was someone else.
Grim looks mark the faces of the remaining contestants. No, maybe they weren't going to win, but second place, well, there was a good chance. That's gone now.
There will be only one winner and it is . . . Toni Lively! Yes, all along it could only have been she. She looks like Dolly Parton and is given three $100 bills. She tuck them in a safe, if closely watched, place. The men cheer.
As the last waitress, cashier, bartender, beauty operator and college biology major troops off the stage, Gilley's comes back alive. The band got going with the "Cotton Eye Joe," and David Bolton, an 18-year-old electrician, is seen frantically leading his partner to the dance floor.
Just moments before, in his T-shirt and blue Union Pacific cap, he had been challenging her in a strength contest on the slammer machine, a device constructed of a siren and an iron shuttle on ball bearings.
Lee Besch, 56, a maintenance worker on his third outing to Gilley's, is on the dance floor. "My wife passed on April 18 and I finally said, 'Hell, I'm gettin' tired of sittin' at home.' I meet quite a few girls . . . It's people just being themselves. That's it."
Big John Knotts is working the KO Machine now, and some cowboys are trying to ride the bucking bull. Most end up in the mattresses. A cowgirl tries. She does not make it, but the machine's operator gently stops the bull and she climbs down. Cindy Smith is talking about life in the big country, and the band plays The Schottishe. A 36-year-old contestant, looking a bit older than that, wanders in front of the stage in her blue jeans and Dolly Parton look-alike red and white polka dot blouse, "Mother," says her 19-year-old daughter, "you are so drunk."
And Mickey Gilley says, "When people walk in here they are completely amazed."