The Dallas Triangle of Hip (2003)
At the end of a low-slung, flat-roofed, unprepossessing strip mall is a room that for some 40 years has been the site of mysterious magnetic or gravitational natural occurrences, not unlike the Bermuda Triangle. Since before the JFK assassination, whether the name on the door was The Loon, Joe Miller's or The Villager Club, the wrists of bartenders here have been loosened to pour deeply and heavily to the delight and occasional downfall of their patrons. Partly as a result, all dates in this story are approximate, coming as they do from the hazy memories (including my own) of longtime patrons and employees. For whatever reason, the one person in a position to know them for sure, Homer Rader, who has owned the property at 3531 McKinney Ave. throughout, declined to be interviewed for this article.
One thing everyone agrees on is that the room has always been dark, especially when entered from the blinding summer sunlight. Built into the brick wall by the original entrance is a functioning wood-burning fireplace, still welcome on winter nights but invaluable to the ambience when it first opened as a jazz bar, The Villager Club, in the early '60s. "It was just about the hippest spot in town," says longtime scene-maker Bill Gilliland, who was president of the Dallas Jazz Society at the time. "It would have been right at home in any noir movie, dark, smoky and always with an ironically detached piano player. The hippest people in town would gather there, including a lot of writers, journalists and otherwise, and--unusual because Dallas was only somewhat integrated at the time--a lot of black musicians, athletes, assorted hipsters and beautiful women."
Banks Dimon, who played drums at the club for years backing Jac Murphy, the ironically detached piano player who owned the club for a while, agrees. "The scene was a lot different back then; there were dozens of jazz clubs around town, many of them right on McKinney, and The Villager was where everybody wound up jamming, listening, drinking."
That's something else that's changed. Most people don't drink the way many people did 20 or 30 years ago, and most of the scenes from that room now sound like they belong in that smoky old noir film: a lot of passing out, a little nudity and some epic fights. One of the funniest involved legendary Dallas bartender Joe Miller, who figures large in the history of this room. According to Dimon, a jingle singer named Frank Bloebaum was a regular at The Chateaubriand, another storied Dallas spot where Miller then ran the bar, and had been verbally harassing Miller for weeks. "Joe was three sheets to the wind in The Villager one night when Frank walked in and the two immediately got into it. Their voices got louder and angrier until finally Joe threw a punch. He was so drunk that he missed completely and knocked over several tables, breaking a couple of ribs in the process. The whole town knew about it overnight, and the bar at the Chateau was mobbed for the next couple of weeks with people who wanted to watch Joe working in his cast."
In the mid-'70s, The Villager closed and Joe Miller opened his eponymous saloon there. Joe got rid of the piano and the sunken bar but changed little else. The newspaper and TV news guys, like livestock to the barn, returned to make it a sort of unofficial press room. Our current mayor used to drink there. Karen Hughes, W's close aide, met her husband there. Back when Dallas had two dailies, competing writers with the same beat would sometimes share assignments with the guy covering the story by calling it in to the writer at Joe's. According to Louie Canelakes, Joe's second-in-command and for the past 17 years the proprietor of Louie's, "At Joe's, there was no rivalry between the papers, but all the writers would drink together, and so would the editors, and the two groups would cuss each other."
The news people were augmented by advertising people, lawyers and the occasional celebrity, and the room was once again the hippest spot in town. The drinks were huge, the talk was spirited and Joe ruled with a whim of iron. Frequently argumentative, rarely violent, Joe would have feuds resulting in the 86-ing of those who displeased him, feuds that were almost always resolved. Louie quotes longtime sportswriter Sam Blair, "Joe Miller's was like Rick's place in Casablanca. Everyone used each other and nobody cared."
Joe died in 1985. His widow, Linda, ran the place for a while, eventually giving up and setting the stage for its current incarnation as The Loon. New owner Cliff Gonzales enlarged the room, squared off the bar and staffed it with what may be the best-looking bunch of young women who are neither hookers nor dancers to be found in any bar in town. (He denies that he hires for looks. I don't believe him.) Perhaps Gonzales' biggest change was to add food, standard bar fare augmented by longtime Dallas chef Alessio Franceschetti's Italian specialties.
Partly because of the food, the extended hours (The Loon now opens at 11 a.m. and serves lunch) and proximity to the West Village, the crowd is more eclectic now, changing as afternoon gives way to evening and then to late night. The war stories sound familiar, though. Gonzales tells of two groups of regulars, one made up of blind people and the other of daily afternoon drinkers known to the bar as "the boys." One of the boys once drank so much that--surely to his good fortune--he was unable to find his car and then couldn't find the door back into the bar. "He was led back in by one of the blind guys, and it brought down the house!"
Under Gonzales, The Loon has continued the tradition of the big drink. "I learned it from Joe," he says. "Pour heavy, make the customers comfortable and they keep coming back." Maybe, but I still go for the mystical force of nature/location theory.