By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"The seed got planted, and nobody pruned it, and it just grew," Meyers says. "It became kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that you would have these incidents that were perceived as gang-related, and then you had some of the landlords rent to people who tend to cater to the type of people that attract gang activity outside those venues, and it snowballs...As a business owner, there has to be a balance there, and the whole thing tilted, and nobody's been able to bring the equilibrium back."
Deep Ellum long ago became "a city within a city," as predicted in the Deep Ellum Conceptual Plan presented to the city council in 1984, just as clubs such as Theatre Gallery and Prophet Bar were opening, and the neighborhood was waking from its slumber as a vacant collection of empty warehouses and dying businesses left over from decades past. As such, it's rife with the familiar, wearying gripes of any small town full of factions that want this while their competitors want that instead. There are plenty of people wanting to blame something, or someone, for Deep Ellum's demise, and there are plenty of folks to blame. One thing no one will dispute: Deep Ellum ain't what it used to be and won't be till someone steps in to fix what's become an unholy mess.
"If this is just a cycle Deep Ellum's going through, it's a really long cycle," says Sam Paulos, one of the owners of the Curtain Club and Club Clearview, the latter of which Paulos and his partners purchased from former co-owner Jeffrey Yarbrough three years ago. "It's a long enough cycle that I don't know where Deep Ellum will be in the next three, four years. Eight, 10 years ago I could say if it had a few down years it will bounce back, and I can't say that anymore. And on the heels of Dada and Trees going away, I can't say whether there will be any entertainment business or whether it will be restaurants and retail with no more live music. It's a viable area that is right next to downtown and has a long history and will do something, but that something could be so different from what it is right now it won't be recognizable as the same thing."
Curtain Club, which celebrates its eighth anniversary this weekend, is doing terrific business, say Paulos and his partner Doug Simmons. Both men have been in the area for years--Paulos, as owner of Crystal Clear Sound, which has been distributing CDs for local bands ever since the Dixie Chicks were hatchlings; Simmons, as a band manager and booking agent since the late 1980s. The Curtain Club, like the EC, also filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2004, the result of a lawsuit brought by the parents of a Fort Worth woman who died in a car wreck on Interstate 30 after a night spent drinking at Curtain and the Village Station. The suit's been settled for an undisclosed amount, the bankruptcy has been terminated, and Simmons says Curtain's "on cruise control," as healthy as ever as a live-music venue despite Deep Ellum's tarnished rep.
But Clearview, opened by Jeff Swaney in 1985 in an old louver factory on Elm Street, is on shaky ground that threatens to swallow whole the complex of four clubs under one roof: the live-music room and three dance clubs, including Art Bar and Blind Lemon. Last week, Clearview's owners fired a bartender and are looking into selling off the place room by room--especially the Blind Lemon, a once-popular eatery that's now a barren room where you can go to dance with yourself. "At Clearview," Simmons says, "we're just beating our heads against the wall."
Curtain Club's owners bought Clearview three years ago for two reasons: They thought the place could actually make money if they slashed the exorbitant expenses, which included an out-of-control payroll and "huge" radio ad budget, and they simply didn't want to see the club close.
"It was such a staple of the neighborhood," Simmons says. "Three years ago, it was bad too...But we thought we could cut the budget way down and be OK, if we could maintain the same level of productivity. But we're lucky if there are five people in the Art Bar and Blind Lemon every night. The only thing keeping that place open is the live-music room, and even there that crowd isn't as big as we'd like it to be."
Curtain and its adjoining club Liquid Lounge are doing well, Paulos and Simmons say, because the complex is a destination place--a joint that offers only live music, which makes it something of a throwback in the neighborhood. The bands might not draw like they used to back when the Toadies guaranteed at least a few hundred on a weeknight, but a couple hundred's better than a couple. And most people who go to the Curtain stay there, Simmons says, which means they'll drink a little more and spend a little more.
"With Deep Ellum being the way it is, they're staying put," he says. "They don't leave and wander around."