Owner and Preservationist of Gruene Hall, Pat Molak, Has Died

Pat Molak with George Strait (photo via Gruene Hall)

Imagine a Texas music scene without Gruene Hall. It’s difficult to impossible to do. And if it wasn’t for Pat Molak discovering the ruins of an old town just north of New Braunfels, and making it his life’s purpose to preserve it and turn it into something memorable, who knows where Texas music might be. Gruene Hall is the shrine, the epicenter, the Mecca of Texas country.

For those not from the area, it’s pronounced “Green” like the color. It’s where George Strait first found support for his fledgling career. It was one of Jerry Jeff Walker’s favorite places to play. Billy Joe Shaver once had a heart attack right on the Gruene Hall stage … and kept on playing through it.

When Willie Nelson sold out a benefit at Gruene Hall in 1998, they had to build a secret entrance called the “Willie Door” where performers could scamper in and out when the crowd reached capacity. No, Gruene Hall has no back door, or green room.

Just as Nashville has the Ryman Auditorium and Tulsa has Cain’s Ballroom, Gruene Hall is the centerpiece of country music in the picturesque Texas Hill Country. Taking a trip to Gruene is like taking a trip back in time. Simply entering the town immediately enacts a positive mood swing, and a laid back feeling. Stepping foot into Gruene Hall is to walk on the same floor as many of the titans of country music.

It wasn’t always this way though. In the early ’70s, the town of Gruene first founded in the late 1800s was all but abandoned. Built originally in 1878 by Henry (Heinrich) D. Gruene, the 6,000-square-foot dance hall was really all that was left, with a little beer hall in the very front of the building that barely anyone frequented. This is when Pat Molak stepped in.

Born and raised in San Antonio, Pat Molak attended the University of Texas in Austin, though never graduated. What he did get in Austin was first-hand insight into the music scene that was sprouting up in Texas thanks to guys like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. After trying his hand unsuccessfully as a stockbroker, he set out to open his own honky tonk to help support and become a part of the burgeoning Texas music scene.

Molak attributes sheer luck to stumbling on the old abandoned German town of Gruene on the Guadalupe River with it’s abandoned brick buildings, partially destroyed mill, and the disheveled Gruene Hall seemingly days from falling in on itself. What Molak saw was a dream waiting to happen. With a little seed money from his father and a song, her purchased Gruene Hall in January of 1975.

Part of the magic of Gruene is its strategic placement near the college town of San Marcos, not too far from Austin for a day trip, and fairly close to San Antonio too. Gruene is perfect for getting away, but not having to go too far. Thanks to Pat Molak, it’s now officially the oldest continually run dance hall in Texas.

Once the dance hall was jumping with live music on a nightly basis, Pat Molak set to preserving the whole Gruene town and its historic buildings. The partially destroyed mill became the Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar, opened in 1977. They opened the Gruene General Store in another preserved brick structure. The other abandoned structures were purchased, preserved, and businesses were opened in them as well.

Garth Brooks played at Gruene Hall in 2019

At last count, 23 of Gruene’s 25 acres were owned by Molak, with 15 of them designated as a National Historical District. Preservation was always Pat’s charge, not exploitation. Pat loved to say, “Plans are in the works for not changing a thing!” He would parade around in his signature shorts, tennis shoes, or flip flops when weather was appropriate.

As Gruene became a serious business enterprise, Pat still kept it casual. He also opened numerous restaurants in the San Antonio area, including the beloved Josephine Street founded in 1979. But Gruene Hall was always the flagship of the business empire.

Today, Gruene Hall is recognized worldwide. It’s an A1 stop for any country music fan traveling through Central Texas. But if it wasn’t for Pat Molak, who knows what would have happened. The whole town may have been bulldozed to put in a neighborhood or strip mall. Instead, the town of Gruene with its bustling businesses and signature water tower overlooking Gruene Hall remains.

On Tuesday, April 2nd, Gruene Hall announced that Pat Molak had passed away at the age of 76.

“A true pioneer, he helped drive singer-songwriter and Americana music to the forefront of Texas music. His passion for this piece of Texas history lives on each time someone steps through our door and will continue for decades to come.”

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