In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. Click here to find all our People Issue profiles.
“At this point I’ve become about 97 percent authentic,” says Rawlins Gilliland, the master storyteller who turned 70 in April and is coming off what he calls the best year of his life. If you’ve seen any of the three stage shows he’s put on in that time — he gave one performance at Sons of Hermann Hall and three at The Kessler Theater, all of which sold out — you’re probably wondering about that last 3 percent. The shows, consisting of true stories from his life set to live music, were so outrageous and soul-baring that it’s hard to fathom what he could have left out.
Gilliland, who was most recently a commentator at KERA for 12 years, left that position so he could speak unfiltered, and each show was progressively more revealing. In Rated [R]awlins we learned about his hijinks stowing away on planes, sleeping in the Parthenon and meeting Jimi Hendrix — mostly zany, upbeat stories. But there were dark turns too, as when he recounted the time he was abducted, raped and left for dead, a horrific incident that appeared again in the second show, Happy Murder Stories.
That performance focused on his many life and death experiences. But even the most twisted of these stories was imbued with beauty. “It was wonderful to be on stage and tell stories that are so horribly wounding and to realize it hasn’t haunted you for a long time,” he says. Many were humorous in retrospect, like the time a hallucinating Marine once tried to kill him, thinking Gilliland was a woman named Linda.
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Then, in honor of his birthday, Gilliland went for broke with his most salacious stories yet in Detention Hall: 70 Years of Poor Conduct. He discussed such taboo subjects as underage prostitution — at 14 he flew to Acapulco on his sister’s Neiman’s card and charged hotel guests $5 to make out with him — and a romantic rendezvous in a crypt. His shows weren’t about impressing the audience with his exploits, he says, they were about taking the audience somewhere. Gilliland is proof that anything can be said if it’s said well.
His poetic sensibility can partly be attributed to his growing up in East Dallas surrounded by artists. Gilliland’s mother was a book reviewer for The Dallas Morning News and his father was a professional musician. Celebrities such as Tennessee Williams showed up to cocktail parties at his childhood home. But Gilliland’s sense of adventure was innate: “I’ve got these stories because I’m the kind that will go and wonder why I did instead of not go and wonder why I didn’t,” he says.
In the course of all his adventuring, Gilliland has also held some pretty impressive posts. Prior to the KERA gig, he was a National Endowment for the Arts master poet in Alabama in the 1970s and national sales director of Neiman Marcus in the 1990s. He’s worn more hats than most people know exist. “You can be very different people in different eras of your life and yet still keep the core DNA of who you are,” he says.
This past year marked the achievement of his creative dream of writing and sharing his experiences. “I can never thank the city of Dallas enough. Who in the hell can sell out four shows in 11 months in a town that’s this crammed with stuff going on? It’s not like I played with U2,” he says. “I hope that it can motivate people to realize that there are not only second acts, but third and fourth and fifth acts.” Gilliland says he’s probably done with stage shows, but still more acts remain: Next, he plans to write a book.