By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It was in the mid-1980s that the West End seemed most potent. In this go-go decade, a blessed formula of investment and ideas floated by a vibrant economy converged on the district, juicing it with an urban energy as distinctive as its architecture.
The West End MarketPlace was its apogee: a $25 million 250,000-square-foot bazaar tucked under an atrium. Five levels of small specialty retailers, food and beverage vendors and nightclubs slipped into the circa-1911 Brown Cracker & Candy Co. building. An investment group that included Robert Bagwell, Preston Carter and Atlanta retail specialist David Levine bankrolled the project.
But the district's reactor core was Dallas Alley, the nightclub complex created by bar wizard Spencer Taylor. Straddling both the West End MarketPlace and the Coca-Cola building next door, Dallas Alley opened in October 1986, rapidly morphing into 10 nightclubs. Its flagship was the 8,000-square-foot Boiler Room with multilevel seating. Feeding around the Alley edges was the rhythm-and-blues bar Froggy Bottoms slotted in the basement of the Sunshine Biscuit building; the pseudo jazz club Take Five; the pub-like Plaza Bar; a nostalgic grill called Bubbles Beach Diner; and a private piano bar called Backstage. The blockbuster Alley Cats, a dueling sing-along piano bar patterned after Pat O'Brien's in New Orleans, followed within months.
Strings of clubs threaded through the complex over the years, and the pull was phenomenal out of the chute, stoked by an annual $1 million entertainment budget Carter and his investors devoted to the project, half of which went to parlay talent while the other half was channeled into advertising and marketing. "Once we opened Dallas Alley it really put the West End in a huge play," Carter says. "It made it the center of entertainment for Dallas."
Dallas Alley exploited a persistent nightclubber yearning: the club-to-club safari. But it allowed them to indulge in the sweaty roam in close quarters for a single cover charge that ranged from zero on Mondays to $5 on weekends. Just four months after the mix opened, it was drawing some 17,000 visitors a week, making it the top-grossing alcohol sales venue in the state, siphoning a reported $748,482 for the month of July 1987 alone--more than twice that of the then-second-place Loews Anatole. Dallas Alley was quickly racking up $12 million in annual revenues, tossing off some $5.5 million in sales and liquor taxes in 1987, ranking it first in the state.
"There was nothing like it," says Teresa Rynell, Dallas Alley's one-time marketing lieutenant. "Dallas needed it." Along with Taylor, Rynell spearheaded a number of West End events that compounded the area's popularity. Free outdoor concerts on Monday nights, with acts that included Midnight Oil, Van Halen and Guns N' Roses, drew throngs, packing the West End all the way back to Main Street. "We started fearing for our lives," Rynell says. "There were thousands of people down here...They were hanging from the buildings. They were on every fire escape. It was the most incredible sight you've ever seen. Back in '86 or '87, nobody came downtown, and we were drawing these thousands and thousands of people."
But Rynell says the developers became delirious on cash streams and began whittling away at her events and staff. Taylor, who went on to help develop Gilley's Dallas before moving on to Deadwood, South Dakota, to stoke a $38 million entertainment, gambling and lodging complex called Deadwood City Limits, was let go in 1988 (Taylor couldn't be reached for comment).
"[Taylor's] an absolute genius as far as laying out a club and an entertainment complex," Carter says. "But he's real artistic and creative, which means he's a terrible manager." Rynell landed on the chopping block the following year. Not long after, she maintains, Dallas Alley began its decade-long decline. Instead of top talent on Monday nights, bookings featured rock-geezer retrofits such as Bad Company's Paul Rogers with Journey's Neal Schon, Kansas, REO Speedwagon, Bachman Turner Overdrive and Three Dog Night. There was even a rock cadaver vigil called "A Candlelight Tribute to Elvis," featuring Elvis impersonator Dave "Elvis" Tapley. Concerts shared billing with promotions such as wet T-shirt contests and The Kiss-A-Pig campaign. "Everything just seemed to kind of begin unraveling," Rynell says. "It got a lot sleazier."
The West End was also racked with crime. Case in point: In October 1988, a 21-year-old Tulsa man spending his vacation in Dallas was shot to death in a nearby parking lot. The next day a man was arrested for shooting at a man who flung racial slurs at him. From that point on newspapers bulged with reports of bottle attacks, confiscated shotguns and pistols, gang fights and arrests for public intoxication, glue sniffing and public urination. In October 1989, police lost control of a crowd of more than 20,000 when fights broke out during a free concert featuring the heavy metal band Warrant. Outdoor heavy metal concerts were subsequently throttled.
"Initially it was all positive and upward and buoyant and enthusiastic," says Vincent Meyer, who has operated the polo equipment retailer Texas Polo for close to 30 years in the Brewery nearby. "Then the gangs started moving in, and they ran everybody off." To be sure, the advent of teen clubs such as Level V in the MarketPlace and electronic game arcades such as Tilt in Dallas Alley flooded the area with teens, repelling families and young professionals. Level V was closed after one year, but Carter says the opening of the DART line did nothing but bring more gangs to the West End--for a dollar. "I started playing Bob Wills music on the loudspeakers," he says. "That irritated 'em."