What happens when pop culture moves into a town without entertainment? We find out by exploring Utopia, Texas, a town that's long lived without blockbusters, bookstores and movie theatres

By Karen Valby
August 25, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Utopia, Texas
pop. 1,000

There was a time when if you wanted to watch television in Utopia, a no-stoplight ranching community nestled in a green swath of Texas Hill Country 80 miles west of San Antonio, you’d better have liked what was playing on CBS or NBC. They were the only two channels that people here could get, unless the wind in the canyon wasn’t blowing, and then you might twist the rabbit ears just right and luck into ABC. There was one honky-tonk radio station, there were no book or music stores, and the closest movie theater was a 50-minute drive to the Forum 4 in Uvalde. Diane Causey, the elegant manager of the antiques store in Utopia, spoke somewhat wistfully of her hometown’s former cocoon from the outside world. ”If we didn’t see it on the old black-and-white TV or hear about it on the San Antonio radio station, we didn’t know it existed,” she said. Because Utopia has no mayor or local government, there is no one to record the official population, but locals guess that around 1,000 residents call the town home. The actor Thomas Haden Church is one of them; he owns a nearby cattle ranch and is a regular with the rest of the coffee drinkers at the Lost Maples Café (which, in its past lives, served as Utopia’s drugstore, doctor’s office, Masonic lodge, and classroom for college certification courses, and whose main competition for diners is the Garden of Eat’n across the street). Here, Church’s Academy Award nomination for the movie Sideways didn’t generate much buzz, and he is still known by most as Lowell from the ’90s TV series Wings. ”If you want to be famous,” said Tacy Redden, who owns the café, ”this isn’t the place to be.” Rock & roll fans still can’t buy a CD in Utopia, or a drink for that matter, and you can’t go see a movie or a reading or a pop band. And if you want to rent a DVD, you’re still stuck picking from a shelf of new releases and old Westerns at the gas station. But in the last few years, satellite TV and the Internet have swept through Utopia and remote small towns like it, and while crystal meth has yet to twist its grip around this middle American town, the kids are hooked on the thrilling instant gratification of MTV and MySpace.

There are 190 students, from prekindergarten through 12th grade, who go to the Utopia School, and they are the first generation of residents raised with any broad access to pop culture. Some of them casually enjoy it, the way someone in New York City might appreciate a dishwasher or a seat on the subway, and some of them are so nourished and sustained by entertainment that burning through half a tank of gas to go see a movie is a necessary investment. Not that that makes much sense to the folks in town who get driving so far to go to a Wal-Mart or a Spurs game or a stock show, but a movie?? The older generations can understand the appeal of Lost or The Tonight Show (though some complain of Jay Leno’s too-frequent cracks at President Bush), but they still view Hollywood as a potential predator on their traditions and values.