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Sons of Hermann Hall doesn't really look like much. The lack of foot traffic out in front of the building doesn't help matters, either. From the outside, it appears nothing more than a lonely and somewhat unapproachable edifice.
But things are quite different on the inside of the Deep Ellum mainstay. A peek into the bar on a recent Tuesday night finds the room filled with couples happily dancing to tunes coming from the jukebox at the far side of the room. They talk and laugh over the vibrant music for hours on end, casting welcoming smiles at newcomers and old friends alike.
And this, for all intents and purposes, is a slow night—nothing going on but just another of the venue's many community-oriented events.
Which is fitting. The historic hall, built by a fraternity of German immigrants identifying themselves as the Sons of Hermann, has been a community staple since its formation. Built in 1910 on the far eastern edge of Deep Ellum, the building is something of an antique—the last remaining all-wood structure in Dallas, a fact that the hall's eager volunteers are quick to point out to curious visitors.
It was built, quite specifically, as a community center for the fraternity—complete with a bowling alley, a bar and a ballroom. Over the years, though, it has turned into something else: The upstairs ballroom, built so the music-loving German immigrants could congregate and dance, would go on to be used as a concert venue for local bands and touring acts alike. Over the years, its stage has hosted everything from punk bands to country and Western outfits.
More impressive is the fact that this year Sons of Hermann Hall is celebrating a milestone that few Dallas buildings can claim—its 100-year anniversary. The celebration promises to be a large one. Organizers have planned 100 nights of revelry in the building—one for every year the building has endured. The varied calendar of events—concerts, jam sessions, sing-alongs and poker nights, among other things—began April 1 and will run through July 9.
Before the start of the celebration, though, came some work. To gear up for the anniversary, volunteers made updates to the space, removing tattered concert posters from the walls and prepping for an increase in visitors.
"We've been working every day," notes longtime Sons member "Ranger" Randell Fields while overseeing several other volunteers as they struggle to hang a large banner in the middle of the hallway. "At Sons of Hermann, we're a nonprofit, so when we need something fixed, we look among our membership to see who has the skills. If we need a plumber, we'll look for someone among us who knows plumbing."
The volunteers aren't just on hand for event preparation and building management issues, though. Unlike other bars and venues in Dallas, all the workers at Sons of Hermann Hall—from the ticket-takers to the bartenders and everyone in between—are volunteers, usually consisting of members from one of the two lodges inhabiting the hall, although membership is not a requirement.
"We want to be a community hall for Deep Ellum," Randell says, smiling at his hard-working volunteers. In other words: Everybody is welcome.
And, indeed, plenty have come through the hall's doors: Bargoers, swing dancers and, sure, even filmmakers. Parts of RoboCop were shot there (the building served as the police station in the Dallas-shot film); so too Walker, Texas Ranger. Even the Dallas auditions for the first season of American Idol were filmed at Sons of Hermann Hall, making the venue the first stop in Kelly Clarkson's road to fame.
Which is kind of perfect in a way, since music has played a large role in the building's identity since its construction. But, starting in 1985, music truly became the hall's calling card. That's when the venue began inviting more and more outside promoters to start using its ballroom space for concerts.
A run-through of the list of performers who graced the stage in the venue in that first decade of its commitment to music is impressive, to say the least: Robert Earl Keen (in his first ever Dallas appearance), Ray Wylie Hubbard, the Dixie Chicks, the Old 97's, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Wilco (on their first ever tour), Jack Ingram, Townes Van Zandt, Pat Green, Whiskeytown, The New Boehemians, Slobberbone and the Drive-By Truckers.
And that's where Sons' history gets really interesting. Because, before long, much like it has with the fraternity members and the volunteers, the building started growing on these performers. Robert Earl Keen recorded his 1998 release, The Live Album, there. More recently, after having performed a four-night run at the venue to close out 2009, the Old 97's camped out at the venue over the summer to start tracking the songs heard on their most recent release, The Grand Theatre, Vol. One.
"This place nurtures the artist," explains one beaming volunteer, Lora Williams, while sitting in the hall's bar on a recent weeknight. "It gives them an opportunity that they don't always have at other places.
Old 97's bassist Murry Hammond can specifically attest to as much. He remembers his first gig there—cherishes it, even. Very soon after the Old 97's' formation in 1993, when the band members were still working their day jobs around town, they performed at Sons for the first time. The band had been deliberately avoiding the Deep Ellum music scene up till that point—they were the "oddballs" of the music scene back then, Hammond says. But there was something special in the small-town dancehall charm of Sons that the Old 97's quickly became enamored with.
"We loved it," Hammond says, speaking over the phone from a 97's tour stop in Boston. "We've been playing there ever since. You identify some key great venues that, if I just played there the rest of my life, I'd be happy. Sons of Hermann is one of those places. It's just sopping with good vibes and atmosphere. We keep returning because we know how to do Sons of Hermann."
Indeed: For a time in 1997, Hammond briefly became one of the Hall's fraternity members—something that bands familiar with Sons have long been known to do, if only to benefit from the cheaper prices of renting the ballroom for performances. (And, OK, for the cheaper drink costs, too.) That's why Beau Wagener and several of his bandmates in The Crash That Took Me became members, at least.
"It's really pretty cool," Wagener says. "When it's empty, it can seem kind of cavernous, but when you're playing to a full room, it's great."
So that old, lonely appearance of Sons of Hermann Hall? Turns out, it's deceiving. Thanks to recent bookings from area companies such as Parade of Flesh, the venue has started hosting shows from younger acts with musical styles that differ from the previous years of country and roots bands.
Further proof that the venue still knows what's up in 2011: Sons of Hermann Hall now even has a Twitter account (@SonsofHermann). A recent tweet: "A challenge for you: Find a bar in Dallas older than Sons of Hermann Hall, and I will buy you a drink!"
Good luck with that one. Sons may be getting older. But it's not old just yet.