Against all odds, Deep Ellum is again showing signs of life. To see them, just take a drive down Elm Street.
The cars lining the street are among the first things to catch the eye. So, too, are the construction workers milling about, preparing the soon-to-be-opened businesses along the 2700 block of Elm. Then there are those that have already opened. Trees, long revered as a lynchpin of the "good ol' days of Ellum," is back in lights. And with it? The just-opened Chicago-style deli Crickets, located across the street. And next to the music venue, Vietnamese restaurant Lemongrass, which opened its doors in June.
And soon enough? Another bar is scheduled to open—right next to Crickets, in fact. And a few more bars, too, are in the works—or so talk around the neighborhood suggests. Meanwhile, The Green Room, once a legitimate destination dining spot that gave even the non-nightlife set a reason to venture into Deep Ellum during its heyday, will reopen in early February, assuming all goes to plan. And within weeks, just up the road, past another recently reopened live music space, The Lounge on Elm Street, a music venue called 2826 is set to open at Elm's intersection with Malcolm X Boulevard.
It's head-spinning, actually, to think of all the businesses that will soon call this long-dilapidated part of town home.
There are even crowds of people milling about. At night, even. They pop in and out of Trees and The Lounge, taking breathers from the shows within. They head into and out of Kettle Art gallery. Or they just wander, scoping out the neighborhood, reminiscing about what was and what might soon again be.
Perhaps more notable than the recently turned-on lights of these newly open hotspots are the flicked-off signs of those that once served as Elm Street's anchors.
Seafood restaurant Daddy Jack's, located on the corner of Elm and Crowdus streets? Closed just a couple days ago. The Bone, the long-running blues venue right across the street from that favorite? Closed this past month. And, since summer, the much-revered Club Dada, storied as a breeding ground for stars of the Deep Ellum scene such as The Old 97's and The New Bohemians, has been shuttered.
For years, as the other spaces along Elm Street remained dark, it was these three businesses that remained as the torch-bearers for the neighborhood. But, in spite of staying open during the neighborhood's bleak period, each of these establishments is now dark.
Perhaps none more depressingly so than Club Dada.
In some ways, this isn't a story about Club Dada at all. Indeed, that venue's problems are the same as those that have plagued live music spaces since the beginning of rock 'n' roll time—overambitious owners with too little experience, potentially venue-saving shows falling through at just the wrong time, drugs, paranoia. You name it, it's in Dada's tale.
A new story, this is not. But it sure is a classic—even those involved in the venue's most recent demise can agree on that much. Hell, former Club Dada owner Valerie Baker, the last person to invest money into the space before it quietly closed in late July, says she's planning on writing a book about her experiences.
"You know, stories and anecdotes," she says. "Every night was a different story. It'll be fact-based fiction."
Let's stick with the facts.
At its core, Club Dada's most recent demise is actually a story of not one, but two venues—not just Dada, but also City Tavern, located on Main Street, right in the thick of downtown Dallas.
Before Ben Tapia, a local musician who fronted the band Escort Service, took the reins at Club Dada, he worked as the head booking agent at City Tavern. Thanks to his efforts, things were going great at the venue—better than ever, says City Tavern owner Josh Florence.
"I really attribute a lot of what I know about booking to Ben," Florence says. And his involvement there came about quite naturally. Tapia was just another downtown resident who frequented the hangout and, when asked, was quick to offer his advice to Florence on how to handle live music bookings. "He was kind of a mentor to me, as far as the booking goes," Florence says. "I really didn't know a lot about the music scene in Dallas."
With Tapia's help, the bar was starting to show signs of life as a live music spot by early 2008. Florence had taken over the place from its former owners in 2006, and he was struggling to find an identity for it. Worse, he'd gone into his own pocket trying to keep the place open during his first two years.
But as City Tavern started to thrive, Dada was starting to flail.
Amanda Warr, then Amanda Newman, was struggling to keep the doors of the Deep Ellum club open. All the while, she was trying to keep her own life in order. In April 2006, Warr was approached by Dada's ownership collective—an outfit fronted by Bob Cummins, a musician in Beatles cover band Hard Night's Day, and consisting of a collection of his band's fans who had reopened the space that year to ensure the band's regular gigs at the venue would continue. They wanted Warr to helm the venue's booking when Hard Night's Day wasn't playing. Soon enough, that meant booking the room every night of the week—and, in turn, upending her life.
Given the amount of time she spent working for the space, maybe it was fair that Warr was offered part-ownership of the room. But that move cemented her downward spiral, ensuring her full-on commitment to a sinking ship. "I got evicted from my apartment," Warr admits. "The money I should've put into my rent, I put into the club."
Desperate for help, Warr approached Valerie Baker, a friend and co-worker at Verizon Wireless.
"I was asked to be an investor," Baker says, "and Amanda was my best friend. And I had money because I'd just gotten a divorce."
But, Baker now admits, like Warr, she went into the deal without much foresight.
"I'd just spent 15 years in suburbia," Baker says. "And I was very bored. I went into it so blindly. But, hey, I was having fun."
That is, until she realized what she had gotten herself into. Dada was on its last legs under Warr, and, to her credit, Baker came up with what she deemed a viable solution to the club's woes. Her boyfriend, Ben Tapia, was helping to run a thriving venue in downtown. Surely, he could help turn Dada around.
So, in June 2008, she decided to bring in Tapia. The plan was simple: He'd handle the local booking, just as he did at City Tavern, and Warr would handle the national acts coming through the club.
But Warr was ready to move on as soon as her responsibilities were downgraded.
"I lost my life savings," she says. "I lost everything. It broke my heart. I felt like a failure. I felt like I let all these musicians down. I felt ashamed of running out of my money. And I felt like I could've done more. Like, if I quit smoking, then that's five more dollars a day that could go back into the club—and that's enough to cover one more person through the door."
Defeated, Warr backed out of Dada, giving up both her responsibilities as booking agent and her share in any club ownership.
At a recent meeting at Bryan Street Tavern, Ben Tapia looks like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. It's a stark difference from the perpetual slumped-shouldered look he showcased while sitting at Club Dada's bar during its final days.
More important, the man who essentially ran Club Dada right up until its doors were closed for good in late July is ready to talk—something he hasn't been willing to do since the club went under.
"When Dada approached me, I was brought in as a booking agent," Tapia says, picking up where Warr left off. "It was maybe 20 days before Amanda was gone. And that's where it started. I'm all by myself. I'm the go-to guy if you want to play Dada. I literally had no help" except as far as money was concerned. There was Baker, of course. And there was Cummins. But, to hear Baker and Tapia tell it, Cummins was essentially absent from any day-to-day managerial responsibilities.
"He'd come in every morning and log on to the computer and look at the money," Tapia says.
But by last spring, Cummins too had left the club and his ownership stake in it. Baker and Tapia, neither of whom had much experience in this field, were suddenly running the club on their own. The Queen and her King.
"We didn't know what we were doing," Baker says. "I became an owner without thinking about what the consequences were. I don't know what I thought. I just thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to own Club Dada?'"
When Tapia went over to Dada, Florence tested out the waters too. For a while, he even considered investing.
"It wasn't going well over there, from what [Baker] told us," Florence says. "We did our due diligence. We looked at the numbers. It just didn't seem like a smart move for us to get involved with. Ben jumped in head first with his heart fully in it. He wanted to go be the savior of Dada. And you can't blame him for that. But, from a business perspective, I didn't think it was a smart move."
And though he'd hoped Florence would join him at Club Dada, bringing with him his experience in the day-to-day managerial duties of running a venue, Tapia says he understood Florence's reasoning.
"He either didn't have the time, money or patience," Tapia says. "But he didn't want to invest in Club Dada. What was on the table wasn't enough to sell him on it. Obviously, he made the right choice."
Among Florence's causes for concern was this doozy: Dada hadn't paid rent on its space in more than a year and a half, leaving $30,000 to $40,000 in back rent for the new ownership to deal with.
Still, Tapia had hope.
"When Josh didn't come in, our numbers were, in my opinion, where they needed to be, though slightly off," Tapia says. "When he pulled out of the deal, for sure, it raised a red flag for me. But I honestly felt I could've brought it around...and I fulfilled that for a while. We were definitely on track."
Indeed: There was a time, in late 2008, when Dada seemed primed to regain the status it once held as one of the premier midsized venues in town.
"The first year was fucking amazing," Baker says. "We lived like rock stars. It was fun."
The first major coup of this new regime was a big one: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Booked to the space by Austin-based booking agency C3 Productions as a one-off, one-time-only acoustic performance from the jangly indie rock outfit, the show served as an indicator that this new ownership maybe knew what it was doing.
On August 1, 2008, on the night of the show, things looked promising. The line into the club crawled impressively down Elm Street.
But among those who showed? The fire marshal.
"They were freaking out, I think, because they'd never seen a crowd like that before," Baker says of the fire marshal's arrival.
Sure enough, along with the benefits of a blockbuster show, so too came the venue's first problems. The club was issued a ticket for having shut off its fire alarm. Also, the fire marshal expressed concern over the venue's capacity—specifically, it asked the club to renew its certificate of occupancy with the city. No way, the fire marshal told Baker and Tapia, could the club hold the entire crowd awaiting the show's start.
To Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's credit, instead of leaving a slew of fans disappointed, it decided to perform two sets that night. So, crisis averted. Although, not really: The fire marshal's concerns over the alarm system and certificate of occupancy revealed new, unforeseen costs in running Dada.
"When I did the budget, I didn't take that into consideration," Baker says. "And I didn't have a contingency plan."
Soon enough, Baker fell into her old friend Warr's habits.
"We tried to get loans from anyone," Baker says. "And when we couldn't get any money, either I put in money from my personal account or Ben borrowed money from friends and family."
Even as impressive shows continued popping up on Dada's calendar—Memphis alt-country outfit Lucero, indie rock blog-darlings Tapes 'n' Tapes, Welsh dance-punk outfit Los Campesinos!—similar hidden costs kept getting in the way of Dada profiting.
"When I came in, from June to August, looking at that year's sales from February to May, I doubled the sales," Tapia says. "I fucking doubled them! And from November to January, we were on the verge of tripling those sales. We were profitable, but because of coming in and having to pay back taxes, and the maintenance of the building, and the severe scouring of the place, we weren't."
Things were going well, though. They were. Really.
"I thought we could create a buzz," Tapia says. "And it did. But only in a verbal sense. Not in a supportive sense. All of a sudden, Club Dada was the place to play again. But the only actual support we got was the support the club had been getting for the previous eight years."
Translation: The same crowds as ever. Except during the big shows.
Then things started going really badly. The big shows started backing out. According to Tapia, a Pete Yorn date was canceled because of routing issues. And Lucero, for reasons Tapia doesn't understand, chose to play Fort Worth on its return trip to the region.
Eager for a change in fortune, Tapia began brainstorming a way out of the club's rut.
"There's two types of people in the world," Tapia says. "There are proactive people, and there are reactive people. I would consider myself proactive. That's my nature: 'I'm getting anxious. Let's fucking go! And this town fucking needs it. It needs it!'"
What Dada needed, Tapia thought, was a complete overhaul and remodel. His plans were grand. He wanted to reshape the room entirely and turn it into a more "cabaret-style" outfit. The bar would move from the middle of the main performance room to the far left. The stage, forever nestled in the far right, front corner of the space, would then be moved to the middle of the right wall, where performances could be watched from every vantage point. He also hoped to reshape the "green room," turning the space into the region's top acoustic-only venue, a room he'd call The Listening Room at Club Dada. Lastly, he wanted to revamp the vast patio space in the rear.
Once completed, Tapia believed Dada would've boasted three top-notch stages, and finally, his dreams of turning the club into "an A-plus venue" would be complete.
To make it happen, he borrowed $40,000 from friends and family. Among the people he approached: His old pal Josh Florence.
"There were a couple times, if not a few times, when it was getting kind of hairy over there and Ben asked me if I wanted to get involved," Florence says. But his answer never changed. "I was pulling for him over there. But passion only gets you so far. That's why I didn't get involved. It seemed to be too short a shot for success."
Still, some contributed to the cause—enough so that Tapia believed he could start renovating. The Listening Room was his first step, and it cost $20,000.
It looked great: With beautiful tigerwood floors and a new bar, the room, when it opened in April 2009, was an impressive space for intimate performances. And, in an inspired move, Tapia was able to convince revered local singer-songwriter and producer Salim Nourallah to book the space.
Nourallah was sold on the idea—not just for the Listening Room, but for the remodel as a whole.
"His idea for remodeling Dada was badass," Nourallah says. "When he told me about it, I saw it right away. And it would've been incredible."
Others, though, weren't so sure if the changes were necessary. Among that crowd: Members of Dada's own staff and a handful of its Elm Street neighbors.
"I was against it from the start," says Frank Campagna, who has owned the Kettle Art gallery space next to Dada since 2005. "It was mostly because I knew he couldn't afford to do it. The place needs a real good cleaning and refurbishing. But, as far as the layout it already had, it was fine."
Shortly after the Listening Room's completion, Dada would face more trouble from authorities—this time from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission—and the money spent on the room, Baker says, surely would've helped.
As for the naysayers among the Dada staff, Tapia believes their opinion is part of what eventually doomed the club. He says he had a whole slew of potential investors—including a potential silent partner who showed up at the club one night to check out the place and meet with Tapia to discuss the possibilities.
"You know what fucked me the hardest?" Tapia asks rhetorically. "My next-door neighbor and my doorman were so freaked out by the moves I was making that when I finally had the investor with deep pockets come in and see that my idea would work, [they] stopped him at the door to check his ID—when he's 48 years old—and he had to listen to their conversation about me."
Unsurprisingly, the investor then asked Tapia for more time to consider the deal.
"And in that time," Tapia says, "shit collapses."
"There just wasn't enough time," Nourallah says. "But Ben was doing the doggie paddle. Everyone knows that."
Indeed he was. Tapia's employees were quickly jumping ship—among them bar manager Wes Garratt, a key contributor to making sure that Dada's bar was being managed properly, something Tapia admittedly had little experience with.
Couple that fact with the lack of big shows, and even Tapia says he started to realize that the club's future was doomed. It didn't help, he says, that those who cheered his efforts to revitalize the club weren't showing to support it.
"I realized that the Dallas music scene wasn't supporting the Dallas music scene," Tapia says. "Think of how many people played there and never supported the place. The 35- to 49-year-olds would say, 'I love Club Dada, blah blah blah.' That's great."
But did they do anything to act on it? Tapia says they didn't. It was a pain, he says, to get Hard Night's Day to commit for a show—even when Cummins was still a partial owner.
"Deep Ellum is definitely suffering," Tapia says. "There's no denying that. And it's not only Club Dada. It's Deep Ellum. But there's not a lot of people who give a fuck. And there's not enough people who give a fuck. And the people who do give a fuck? Y'know, they can go fuck themselves. Because it's all words and no action. That 'Save Deep Ellum!' bullshit? It's more like, 'Hey, let's go to Kettle Art and have a slideshow of what was!' Respect your history, fine. But let's fucking make history."
It was Tapia against the world, far as he was concerned. Even visually, Tapia began to look defeated.
Drug abuse accusations started running rampant. Tapia was becoming more and more difficult to track down—for employees, for booking agents, for everyone.
"I'm a very extreme person," Tapia says. "I'm human. I've done stupid things, and I've done great things. There are things I'm proud of and things I'm ashamed of. As far as me going over the edge? Yeah, I'm extreme. I wouldn't say that I had a drug problem. And it's not a problem because I can get drugs anytime I want. The problem there lies in whether I want to do them or not.
"It's not an everyday thing. When you're working the days and hours that I have, if I decide to do them, I'll do them. Everybody and anybody, if you're in this business, unless you're in a Christian band or Barry fucking Manilow, you do drugs. It's part of the game. And if you don't do drugs, hopefully you can play guitar like Angus Young and you don't need them. I drink two to four nights a week. But I'm a binger. If I'm gonna drink, I'm gonna drink to get drunk. If I'm gonna do a line of coke, I'm gonna do it until I don't have anymore. If I smoke a joint, I'm gonna smoke until I can't get any higher. But it's not a problem."
Late on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 1, TABC officers and the fire marshal both descended upon Dada for "violations"—or, more specifically, the $15,000 the club had never paid in liquor taxes.
Tapia, as was becoming his habit, was nowhere to be found.
Local folk singer Nicholas Altobelli stood outside the venue, utterly confused. He'd been scheduled to perform in The Listening Room that night. He never got the chance, of course; employees finally reached Baker and Tapia, and together, the decision was made to close for the night.
A much bigger event was scheduled to take place in the main room later that evening: Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights, who were on the road with Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd, were performing at the Superpages.com Center that evening. As a homecoming celebration, local booking agency Method Entertainment had booked the band to perform at the club at an after-party sure to bring in big numbers. In fact, it did draw big numbers—on the opposite end of Deep Ellum at The Double Wide.
It was a major loss for Dada.
In the following days, the question persisted: Was Dada open or not? Tapia, when reached, maintained that it was. But the venue's lights were only on intermittently and without much warning.
The constant wavering led to the loss of at least one more big show from a local promoter.
John Iskander, head of Parade of Flesh booking, scored quite the coup when he landed a Bacardi-sponsored tour from lo-fi dance-punk duo Matt and Kim. He'd hoped to host the show at Dada. But because Tapia was impossible to get hold of, the date fell through, eventually moving to House of Blues.
Before long, Tapia acknowledged that the club was going to close—but, he claimed, only for two months, so he could complete his grand-scheme renovations.
Those changes never came. Not two months later, not ever. Quietly, in late July, Club Dada LLC officially went under.
Behind the scenes, in those final days, Baker tried hard to sell her share in the business. Problem was, there was nothing to sell. Baker didn't own any part of the room or anything within it. Her landlord, Westdale Asset Management, owned the room. It even owned the rights to the name Club Dada.
All Baker owned was the business entity that operated in the space and owned the liquor license and, with it, the debts owed to the TABC.
"No one would buy that," she says. "And I wouldn't sell it. We were trying to sell what we had done. And the changes we'd made."
Baker ended up simply eating her losses in exchange for getting out of the business, and she negotiated a deal with Westdale that relieved her of fulfilling the club's lease, which ran through June 2010.
Tapia, meanwhile, remained reclusive.
"I didn't care," Tapia says now. He was done. In hindsight, he admits that his hiding out was a mistake. It didn't help matters that, at this same time, Tapia's ex, the mother of his child, had accepted a job offer in Los Angeles and was taking his daughter with her; Tapia began telling friends he was moving to Los Angeles. Turns out, Tapia actually did move—he lives in Studio City, California, these days—although, because of his continuing relationship with Baker, he still returns to the region frequently.
But Tapia does admit fault. "Hold me accountable," he says.
OK, how's this for starters: What about his promise to turn Dada into "an A-plus venue"?
"I didn't do it," he says. "But I was on the verge of doing it. When I [said] that, I'd already seen the floor plan for the new Dada in my mind. If you follow my vision, had I got that club to where it needed to be, it would've stood up to Trees, to the House of Blues, to the Palladium. It would've stood up to even the Nokia Theatre, if only because of the artistic integrity of the place. It would've stood on four legs."
If he sounds a little delusional there, well, he should. Which speaks to another concern about the last regime at Club Dada: Were they doomed from the start?
"Yes," Baker admits. "It was my fault for getting Ben involved. I asked too much of him. No one can do all those jobs [booking local and national acts, running the day-to-day of the venue, managing the bar and all that that entails]. It was unfair of me to ask that of him."
But maybe it's more than that. Maybe it's Dada that's doomed.
"Is there a Dada curse?" Amanda Warr asks. "I've been asked. I don't know if there's a Dada curse as much as there's a city of Dallas curse."
The argument there is that in this environment a true-blue, artistic-minded music venue can't survive. Not in a city where live music isn't chic anymore, having long been overrun by expensive bottle-service nightclubs.
But tell that to Trees, which is enjoying big crowds on a regular basis. Or tell it to any of the other establishments opening up on Elm Street. Here are people buying into the city of Dallas' vision for Deep Ellum—or its current one, at least—and into a sense of a Deep Ellum community.
Can a future Club Dada be successful? Yes—all parties interviewed for this piece agree on as much. So long, that is, as it's run right. Oh yeah, that. Meaning? Someone with club-management experience runs the place, for one. But is anyone really interested?
Before a Deep Ellum Enrichment Project meeting at Deep Ellum restaurant St. Pete's Dancing Marlin, Taylor Allday, Mark Roberts and David Marrett acknowledge that they, members of the group behind The Green Room's reopening, are interested in Club Dada—but only if they can run the venue as part of a collective, a la the defunct Entertainment Collaborative that once simultaneously ran The Green Room, Trees, Gypsy Tea Room and other spaces in the neighborhood.
They have some experience there; Allday was on the original management team at The Green Room. Dada, the threesome agrees, would fit nicely into those plans.
"There's a lot of nostalgia for Dada," says Allday. "It looks, in a lot of ways, like the same space it always was. But it's a shame that the patio has been left so neglected."
Like Tapia once did, Allday and his group are already envisioning how to clean up the space and get it ready for opening. They say they'd remove the head above the bar, for one, opening up the room a little bit. And they'd clean the place up, of course. Oh, and work on that patio too.
But if they were to move forward, they wouldn't reorganize the room like Tapia had planned. That much, they feel, would be unnecessary.
"A lot of it," Allday says, "is raising enough money to do it right. If we can't do it right, we won't do it."
Problem is, like Warr and Baker and Tapia before them, neither Roberts nor Marrett—the two members of The Green Room's ownership that would be charged with running Dada—have much actual venue-management experience. Roberts has some, having worked as a marketing consultant for venues such as the House of Blues and as the man behind the annual Rockers vs. Mods party at Sons of Hermann Hall. But he's never been the point person. Marrett, meanwhile, has no experience beyond being a longtime live music fan.
But, still, everyone has to start somewhere.
Like here: After a few years in the red at City Tavern, Florence is starting to see his time and effort pay off.
"We're in the midst of a record year," he says. "We're growing."
City Tavern's starting to become something of a destination venue. Local live music fans are showing up on the weekends to catch the venue's regular roster of performers. Denton bands, such as soulful blues-rock favorite RTB2, are starting to play City Tavern like it's their home base in Dallas.
The venue's getting better shows as a result and now is part of the conversation when independent booking agents look for spaces around town where they can hold their touring shows. Just two weekends ago, City Tavern hosted a crowded show from lo-fi, New Jersey-based pop-punk outfit Real Estate, currently among the biggest darlings of the blogosphere.
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Florence, meanwhile, is turning his venue's newfound power into new local music ventures. This past summer, he launched his own record label and band management company. Currently, Round One Records counts RTB2 and favorite area folk duo The O's among its clients.
Florence credits three things for his venue's success: the growth of downtown Dallas as an entertainment district, the influx of residents in downtown and his venue's increased profile as a respected music venue.
Again, he credits Tapia for getting him started. And he maintains that Tapia knew what he was doing, as far as booking is concerned.
"Ben, really, was swinging for the fences," Florence says. "If he's got a fault, it's that he bit off more than he could chew."