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Echoes and Reverberations: At the Theatre Gallery, Capturing Lightning in a Beer Cup

Outside the Theatre Gallery in Deep Ellum a quarter-century ago.
Outside the Theatre Gallery in Deep Ellum a quarter-century ago.

It was the summer of 1984 and the city of Dallas was in the midst of a serious makeover. The Republican National Convention was coming to town and Big D was trying to put a conservative foot forward as the media spotlight fixated on our JFK Bermuda Triangle.

Our local music scene at the time consisted of a half dozen neon rock and roll bars and a handful of tiny punk rock dives: out-of-the-way places like like Studio D, Metamorphosis Concert Hall and Nairobi Room. Classic rock booking agents ignored the bands that played all original material. It was understood that you were expected to cover all of the top radio songs if you ever wanted to land a gig at one of the "wet t-shirt" nightclubs.

In August of that year, a 26-year-old interior design school dropout named Russell Hobbs drove his 25-year-old Mercedes convertible down Commerce Street looking for an empty warehouse space to live in. The irony of this was evident on many levels. Most of the buildings in this warehouse district just east of downtown were dilapidated and empty -- the name "Commerce" (like Riverfront Boulevard today) was false advertising. And Hobbs wasn't your typical Mercedes owner. He was drifting through a veritable ghost town; Deep Ellum had lost touch with its identity. Once a popular entertainment district during the prohibition era, the neighborhood had fallen into an ongoing holding pattern of relative anonymity.

Sure, there were remnant businesses like the old icehouse (where key scenes in "Bottle Rocket" were filmed); Adair's Saloon, Vern's restaurant and Sons of Hermann Hall; a few art galleries here and there; and a place that sold wholesale butcher supplies. For the most part, Deep Ellum seemed to exist under the cultural radar.

In fact, most of downtown Dallas was totally dark after the white-collar crowd fled back to the 'burbs every night.

Echoes and Reverberations: At the Theatre Gallery, Capturing Lightning in a Beer Cup

Hobbs settled on an empty 14,000 square foot warehouse at 2808 Commerce. The landlord, (the late Don Blanton) handed over a set of keys and wished him luck. The next day Russ began hauling in leftover building materials from recent contracting jobs, and he hired a buddy nicknamed "Billy Manana" to hook up the plumbing. The shower was essentially a garden hose hanging from a support beam in the ceiling. There was no hot water heater in the building at the time.

Without blueprints or any real architectural design experience to speak of, Hobbs began to build what looked like an indoor tree house. Everything was constructed out of raw plywood, concrete or drywall. He salvaged an old boat from the back of a failed Mexican seafood restaurant; he then split the hull lengthwise down the middle, and turned the boat into a beer dispensary station. Directly above "El Barco" was the dark loft space where Hobbs slept naked on a dirty futon every night. He didn't need sheets or blankets because it was hot as fuck inside that building.

Next, he snagged the makeshift stage that the Dead Kennedys had used during the protest outside the GOP convention and dragged it into the back of the building. Intuition, luck, and reckless abandon were colliding to make something out of nothing at 2808 Commerce Street.

He named the place Theatre Gallery.

 

Theatre Gallery founder Russell Hobbs with Mabry, Marco and Moore
Theatre Gallery founder Russell Hobbs with Mabry, Marco and Moore


Within a couple of months, Russell erected a clean art gallery space in the front of the building, and promptly made friends with local art dealers Murry Smither and Barry Whistler. Hobbs, who had no experience in the art world, had suddenly stumbled into something with purpose and meaning. During that first year or so, Hobbs hosted incredible, thought-provoking shows by artists Bill Haveron, Ron English and Jeff Robinson. Local art critics fell in love with the space.

The stage in the back would be used for live bands during art openings, and also for controversial theater productions like Brooks Tuttle's "Women Behind Bars," a play that featured the characters locking the audience inside the building. Within a year, TG was bringing in performance artists like Karen Finley, Henry Rollins, Sandra Bernhard and My Sin.

Over the first few months an assortment of cultural gypsies began moving into the building. The place started to look a hippie commune; most days were spent building lofts and balconies and risers. While it was usually peaceful and quiet during the morning, afternoons were often punctuated with the sound of a hammer on nails.

Tracey Smith was a carpenter and handyman from California. He once had dreams of being an actor in Hollywood, and often claimed that he was "the wounded body on the stretcher during the opening credits of MASH". Nicknamed "Beak" (because of his propensity to always peck his way into a circle of people smoking a joint), Tracey was Russell's loyal construction slave; you never saw Smith without his tool belt and measuring tape. In return for his efforts, Hobbs gave Smith a free place to live inside the building.

 

Echoes and Reverberations: At the Theatre Gallery, Capturing Lightning in a Beer Cup

Laurie Watson was a professional juggler and psychic. Her days were usually spent creating these incredible wrap-around belts called "love whips," which were made out of leather, snakeskin, and beads. They often ended up around the waists of people like Stevie Ray Vaughan, and were referenced by Rev. Horton Heat in a song on his first album. Watson would stand on the sidewalk at night and juggle flaming bowling pins, and her younger brother "Timo" was often seen gliding down Commerce on his long board. (Tim, who died in a motorcycle accident earlier this year, poured beer on the nights of art openings.) Laurie would read everybody's tarot cards and once stayed up all night doing naked yoga on the roof of the building with Michael Stipe. Her karma was in pretty good shape. It was nice having her around.

You couldn't think of a more perfect name for lighting tech and house electrician: Ray Watkowski. A ruddy bloke with jacked up choppers and the legs of an ostrich, Watkowski looked from a distance like a thinner version of Johnny Lydon. Ray lived in a tiny loft space above the backstage area, and often walked around during the daytime in a natty bathrobe and slippers. He was usually the first guy that touring bands would encounter when they arrived in the afternoon for sound check. Watkowski rolled his cigarettes by hand and listened to cassette tapes of old jazz music. His lighting booth was my favorite place to sit during an extremely crowded show.

You probably know Jim Heath best as "Rev. Horton Heat". Before that, Heath was a guitarist in a local band called The Polytones. Jim also owned a PA system, which he left set up inside the Theatre Gallery. He certainly wasn't a soundman by trade, but fell into the gig by proximity and circumstance. Heath ran the PA for many of the younger bands because nobody else knew how to do it. When he quit The Polytones and started his solo career, he turned the tech reins over to an engineer named Creighton Curlee; perhaps best known as the owner of the monitor console that Kurt Cobain destroyed at Trees.

Before landing at the Theatre Gallery, I was a 23-year teenager with a very limited skill set. Great at playing air guitar and rolling joints, but couldn't find anybody to pay me to do it. I mowed lawns and sold cable TV subscriptions door-to-door to scrounge money for weed. What a loser.

Then I saw a classified ad in Buddy Magazine for a band seeking a bass player. They were called Group Six. I had never played bass before, but Bill Wisener offered to buy one so I could try out for the band. I was surprised when they asked me back to another rehearsal. The guys in the group were at least ten years older and had wives, kids and jobs; I was often seen wearing pajamas in broad daylight. A loner and a stoner. We didn't have much in common with each other.

Then one Sunday night KZEW DJ George Gimarc played a song from our demo tape on "The Rock and Roll Alternative". Actually hearing my band on the radio gave me a sudden sense of possibility. The next day I took it upon myself to go out and hustle the band up some gigs to play.

In May of '85, I walked into the Theatre Gallery space and introduced myself to Russell Hobbs. Without even listening to our demo tape, he said, "Yeah, man... come down and play after one of our art openings. We're having one in three weeks."

I immediately went home to call all of the guys and tell them the good news about our gig; it felt good to be contributing more than just fake bass parts. Then singer/guitarist Mark Veale dropped a bomb on my head: he was breaking up the band.

Fuck! What was I going to tell this Jim Morrison-lookin' art gallery dude? This was booty.

I rehearsed my story on the drive back downtown. "Dude, I don't know how to tell you this..."

Russ didn't even give it a second thought. "Wow, bummer. Man, why don't you just hang out here and book the bands to play in our back room?"

To this day I have no idea what prompted him to say it. No one had ever offered me a job doing anything. Not waiting around to see if this guy was gonna change his mind, I went to Target and bought a calendar notebook and bag of Bic ballpoint pens and got to work that night. Within a month, I pieced together a schedule that included basically every musician that I knew.

I was born at Baylor Hospital in 1962; a slingshot and rock away from 2808 Commerce St. My personal trajectory started on the outskirts of Deep Ellum and had then returned there 23 years later.

Life was starting over again. For once I felt useful. Theatre Gallery was my new home.

 

Russell Hobbs: "I basically traded prioritizing making money, buying new cars and collecting shiny materialistic possessions for this amazing feeling that comes with experiencing creativity and art in real time. It felt beautiful to be a part of something that was dirty and raw and transcendent. Every day was a spiritual experience stripping away the status quo from my soul... while at the same time, becoming at one with the history of the area. Walking the rail lines by the ice house, the brick facades, this ghost town spoke to me, told me stories and led me to the truth." __________________________________________

Russ and I often stayed up late cutting and pasting artwork for show posters by hand. It wasn't uncommon to see us at the Kinko's on Greenville Avenue at three in the morning, rubbing off letterpress numbers and snipping together random, oddly juxtaposed imagery for our monthly calendars. An eccentric local cut-and-paste artist named Richard Hoefle designed an amazing series of band fliers as well. His art opening at Theatre Gallery was a phenomenal success.

______________________________

Barry Kooda (musician): "Theatre Gallery was one of a kind. It was like "The Little Club That Could" always chaotically balancing between success and closure careening headlong into the annals of Deep Ellum's history. The front room, which was the art gallery, was deceivingly clean and civilized but as you ventured further into the bowels, you found yourself in one of the really true, unadorned, unabashed punk rock clubs of the time. Bare rafters, concrete floors, the smell of stale beer and teen angst sweat." ______________________________

Things were a lot different in 1985. An 18-year-old kid could legally buy alcohol. Ecstasy was everywhere; people who had never taken drugs didn't think twice about experimenting with it, because the pills were still legal. The overall effect that the drug had on the community was tangible and real; musicians were excited about supporting other bands within their peer group. It wasn't a stretch to the guys in Rigor Mortis hanging out at a New Bohemians show, and vice versa.

Everybody loved everybody else. We were all creating and participating in something that felt new and important. In July of that year I moved into the building and threw myself into the lifestyle, 24/7.

Free beer also was an essential element to the success of Theatre Gallery. On the afternoon of shows we would cobble together a hundred bucks, pile into Russell's convertible and hit the beer store for a couple of kegs. Beer was the common denominator. Our cover charge was five bucks, and you were given a plastic cup to use all night at El Barco. There were really no rules to speak of. Nobody ever checked IDs; in fact, three of our door girls were only 17 years old at the time. For almost two years, the venue managed to exist under the TABC radar. When police eventually raided the building during a show, Beak and I spent the night crawling the walls in of the drunk tank at Lew Sterrett Center. That wasn't about to stop us. A month or so later, Russell borrowed some money and we began the process of "going legal."

Echoes and Reverberations: At the Theatre Gallery, Capturing Lightning in a Beer Cup

Meanwhile, Austin noise was dovetailing from the frenetic noise of bands like the Dicks and Scratch Acid into something more organic and twerp-accessible. They called it "New Sincerity": True Believers, Doctor's Mob, Timbuk 3 all made regular trips north on 35 to make our scene. Dino Lee's White Trash Revue was twisted and weird; Bad Mutha Goose and the Brothers Grimm were like a cross between P-Funk and the Big Boys. Theatre Gallery was the Dallas venue of choice for all of the notable 512 freaks of the frame. __________________________________

Alan Levy (Peaches Records): "One of my favorite bands that rolled though TG from Austin was called The Wild Seeds. More than once, I felt like it was a good idea to jump up on stage and join them for the last song of the night; invariably a loud, sloppy wonderful version of Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." There was a point where TG had lost their alcohol permit and my friend Brendan and I loaded up a case of beer in an ice chest and just brought it in with us. Good rock and free beer. Hard to beat! Plus, friendships that are still a part of my life were cultivated there. It was a very important time and place for me."

__________________________________

When Zeitgeist (later renamed The Reivers) played at an early art opening, the members of a teenage Highland Park-based art rock band called The End wandered in and asked Russell if they, too, could book their own show at the venue. Within six months they would be drawing at least 500 teenage Park Cities kids to their own TG performances.

A Buck Pets show poster from the time
A Buck Pets show poster from the time

Butthole Surfers, The Replacements, Bad Brains, Suicidal Tendencies, Husker Du and Meat Puppets all came through when they were at the top of their game. Jane's Addiction was supporting their debut record on Triple X Records, and the Flaming Lips were making the drive down from Oklahoma every few weeks. It was a great opportunity for local bands like Three On A Hill, New Bohemians, Buck Pets and Shallow Reign to share a stage with national touring acts.

It was also a place where the usual disconnect between artist and audience became nonexistent. The bands and their fans hung out before and after shows, doing the kinds of things that Conservative Dallas didn't want young people to do. __________________________________

Scott Johnson (Musician): "In 1985, I was a student at Arts Magnet High School. Living in Plano, I developed an aggravated sense of urgency to escape and find a better way to live -- or at least have a good time trying. People at school told me I had to check out Deep Ellum, and that we could get into the Theatre Gallery even if you were under age. An early New Bohemians show really blew me away; so many people dancing, tripping, the crazy clothes. I immediately fell in love with the club. There was art exploding all over the place. It was my first introduction to a world that I would dwell in for years afterward."

The Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Theatre Gallery
The Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Theatre Gallery

 

Elizabeth Wurtzel (Author -- Prozac Nation ): "My favorite band to see anywhere in Deep Ellum, including Theatre Gallery, is still the New Bohemians. Edie had that voice that was both eerie and soothing, and the musicians could really rock in their neo-Dead way. I saw a lot of great shows at TG; like the Red Hot Chili Peppers only wearing socks to cover their gentleman parts. Or the Butthole Surfers , playing something that almost resembled music, but was really lots of fun, especially with Mr. Peppermint in the audience. One night I was supposed to review a Billy Squier concert at Reunion Arena for the Dallas Morning News, but I was so depressed that I took a bunch of psilocybin mushrooms and walked all the way from Oak Lawn to Oak Cliff. I finally ended up at Theatre Gallery, where Edie was in the middle of singing "Circle," and I knew that I was home."

Ray Liberio (Musician/poster artist): "My first experience with live music was the Bad Brains show at Theatre Gallery. I was 14 and scared shitless! I had never seen people with mohawks, skinheads, punks; much less a band of dreadlocked Rastafarians that switched from their fastest hardcore music I had ever heard to the deepest bass infused reggae. Hell, I don't think I had ever heard reggae before. That show pretty much started my love affair with live DIY music. Theater Gallery was the only place we could get into being as young as we were. We'd drive all the way out from far northwest Fort Worth to see every show. Circle Jerks, Shallow Reign, Exploited, Loco Gringos, Butthole Surfers, Buck Pets, even that show that got busted right as DRI was just about to play. I had found something I truly enjoyed."

Lydia Russell Albers (fan): "Jane's Addiction was doing their first show in Dallas, and we were there before the band showed up. I remember sitting upstairs in the loft above Prophet Bar with Perry, Dave, Eric and Steven; some particularly strong LSD that was going around at the time, and we shared it with them. They were really tripping hard by the time they hit the stage. Almost everyone there was on acid. The Flaming Lips played more times than I could count and were always awesome. All of the girls were so in love with Wayne Coyne and his bouncy curls. He would come out on stage with a decapitated pigs head on his guitar strap and just blow our minds to smithereens. Loved singing along to their cover of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here". It was electricity and magic; it was organic and it was BRILLIANT."

Bobby Beeman (Musician): "One night I was the emcee for a mud wrestling event. The girls who were going to participate demanded more money at the last minute and were told to take a hike. So, with the ring set up and an anxious crowd ready to see some action, I had to grab the mic and talk audience members into mud wrestling for $30. One of the girls who took up the offer was the 17-year-old daughter of DPD chief Billy Prince. [Side note: at the time, one of Chief Prince's press spokespersons was my uncle, Ed Spencer. - Liles] As they squared off in the ring, several police officers came in and started sealing off the space. I figured that holding the mic while their boss' daughter wrestled in mud wasn't the best situation, so I ran out the back door. The best times at Theatre Gallery were those nights filled with magic and chaos, and there were many like that."

Allan Restrepo (Carpe Diem Records): "After TG had closed, I leased the building for a night to showcase Course of Empire to a Zoo Records A&R rep. The band had 55 gallon drums set up all over the club and tossed out the 60 sets of sticks to the audience. We advertised the show as taking place at 'what used to be Theatre Gallery'. Well, Russell found out and was not too happy. I met him for the first time that night. In the middle of dealing with paramedics (someone got hurt by a flying drumstick), I had to face Russell, who wanted to know how I had the audacity to use his club's name. I was delirious and apologetic but I'm not sure he was sympathetic to my chaotic attempts at surviving the night. That was the only time I ever met him. The place was sweltering; no AC in the middle of the summer. Had to be 140 degrees inside. We lost all lights at least twice and had no security people. The stage collapsed about 3/4 of the way through the show, but the band hardly noticed. The police did finally show up, but it was after they had already stopped playing. Miraculously, I wasn't jailed for violating almost every single city nightclub ordinance."

Barry Kooda: "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Played with the Circle Jerks, and we arrived early that day to find Liles mopping up water that had leaked onto the floor whenever it rained. We all pitched in to help because that's the way it was. Everyone helped by doing whatever they could to make it happen. During our set some guy climbed into the rafters and dangled precariously above the packed mosh pit... and then dropped into the waiting arms of the crowd for the best stage dive I'd ever seen. I had to stop the show to applaud his feat. TG was hot. It was sweaty. It was raw and scary. The vibe was one of honest unmitigated, utterly liberating punk rock joy. And I was lucky to have been a part of it."

Ray Watkowski (TG Lighting technician): "After 15 years on the road in Europe touring as lighting designer for Gang of Four, it was a real blast to be given the opportunity to express myself once again; transforming a dark warehouse into a showcase for local talent. Russell Hobbs taught me that art was not just a painting on a wall, but anything and everything you create and do. There was never any money, other than to pay the rent and the electric bill. He instilled in me the "art" and implementation of improvisation; making something out of nothing -- a skill that has stuck with me to this day."

Russell Hobbs: "Theatre Gallery enabled everyone involved in the scene to experience their dreams; whether they were artists, musicians, poets, visionaries, sound engineers, lighting techs or community radio DJs, this new world of opportunity became a haven for people to realize their dreams by being part of something bigger than themselves." _____________________________________

Island Records released a compilation album of Theatre Gallery bands called The Sound of Deep Ellum. The Buck Pets signed with the label and toured with Jane's Addiction. New Bohemians signed with Geffen Records and created an international profile for their music. Rev. Horton Heat would go on to sign with Interscope, and Decadent Dub Team landed a remix of our "SoDE" track on the soundtrack to the film Colors. Our bands were going places. This scene was no fluke or freak accident. We were onto something.

I lasted almost two years at Theatre Gallery, before leaving to help open Club Dada and sort out a new booking gig at Longhorn Ballroom. Things seemed to get really weird at TG after I left. Russell stopped drinking and smoking pot, and became a born-again Christian. The Theatre Gallery and Prophet Bar both stopped selling alcohol. He went on to promote a huge street party called the "Change Your Life Festival," which featured Decadent Dub Team and 30 (or so) other local bands. Some of the people involved were not pleased with the way the gate proceeds were distributed among the bands (we didn't get paid, but didn't expect to) and they often expressed their displeasure with him for months afterward.

Now, two decades later, Russell Hobbs is right back where he started; he has rechristened the old Gypsy Tea Room as The Prophet Bar, and he'll sit down at the bar and have a beer with thirsty band members.

As Russell and I having been fleshing out the details of this Theatre Gallery reunion event over the last few months, we agreed on the name "Full Circle" for differing reasons. He and I are like brothers in the truest sense of the word; both of us think out loud, speak to each other without a filter, and seem to relish the ongoing conflict dynamic that has defined our relationship for over two decades now. We don't always get along.

Russell sees this event as a way to educate the public about the historical significance of Deep Ellum. He believes that an event like this will help to re-establish a certain measure of good will between the people who once supported the Deep Ellum music scene, and those who might have been turned off by what became of the neighborhood around the turn of the century. He might have a point. It could work out on that level, but only time will tell.

"If you go to House of Blues to see a show, you're pretty much just a customer," Hobbs said last night. "When you went to TG you were part of the whole experience. It really did change people's lives. Everybody shared in this organic endeavor; we were all affected by it in different ways, and, in turn, we affected the community around us. It was a real transformation of culture."

25 years after opening the Theatre Gallery, Russell Hobbs is still doing his thing. The commitment to the Dallas music community is evident. He continues to demonstrate the courage of his convictions as a concert promoter and keeper of the flame for his neighborhood.

Because I've left town, knocked around Los Angeles, gone back and forth a few times during that same period of time, my perspective is undeniably a little different. The name "Full Circle," to me anyway, is more symbolic of the cyclical nature of popular music all over the North Texas area, and not just those who have a connection to Deep Ellum. I've watched the area go from being an subversive creative uprising to calculated con job; from a blank canvas to Xerox machine and back again. I've wondered about what must have happened during this time to make the pendulum swing so dramatically over the last 25 years. I think it's disingenuous to pin the hopes and dreams of our entire creative community solely on one neighborhood. Our artists need to be able to play anywhere, under any circumstances.

While working at the Roxy Theater in West Hollywood a couple of years back, I regularly overheard conversations where industry executives would reference Dallas-based artists as being from somewhere other than here. It's been that way for as long as I can remember.

We can't have that. That just won't stand. It's an easy enough problem to fix.

It is time to start moving the trajectory onward and upward. Doesn't matter if you're playing a house party in Denton, a patio in Oak Cliff or an all ages venue in Plano; we need to finally own up to who we are as a creative community. Damn it, we're badass. We've always been badass. People like the original Theatre Gallery crew took matters into their own hands and literally manifested their own destiny.

It's all about intuition, motivation and articulation. Now is the time to present an inspiring example to the next generation of DFW musicians; a succinct means to express our collective experience to the rest of the world.

Music and art are our real lasting legacy. If you made it this far, you know that already.


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