Brightly painted surrealist faces grin, jeer and snarl at passers-by under the neon sign that heralds the entrance to Club Dada – a club that sits on Elm Street just shy of where it intersects with N. Crowdus Street. The masks, fabricated by local artists, have been there for 30 years — as long as the club itself.
Few venues in Deep Ellum can claim the kind of history that Club Dada can. It was opened in September 1986 by Tom Henvey, Doak Boettiger and David Border in the very spot it sits now. It was a trailblazer in the industrial part of town where warehouses dominated the neighborhood and there wasn’t much nightlife to speak of.
At the time, the center for entertainment in Deep Ellum was on Commerce Street where Theatre Gallery and Prophet Bar faced each other at the corner of Crowdus. Even on Commerce, there wasn’t much going on. Despite Deep Ellum’s rich history as a music destination in the 1920s, it had become a cultural desert.
Dada was one of the first above-ground nightlife clubs on Elm – a street that’s main claim to entertainment was after-hours warehouse parties in an era when ecstasy was legal and the drinking age was 18.
“When the guys got that building and decided to open a club, that was risky because Elm Street was uncharted territory. There wasn’t much of anything happening there,” says Jeff Liles, the booking agent at Dada when it opened and current artistic director at The Kessler.
Henvey lived in a loft in Deep Ellum and liked the neighborhood. He and the other owners were in an avante-garde performance troupe called Victor Dada and wanted a dedicated place to hold their shows, which could consist of poetry readings and comedy sketches. They chose the location because of the massive patio (which has now been whittled down and split among several businesses) and also because of the street-facing appeal with its large windows. People walking by could look in and see the performance.
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“All it took is for us to go down there. Once we found the spot, it spoke to us,” says Border.
The trio immediately brought in Liles to fill up the calendar with musical shows on the nights that Victor Dada wasn’t performing. “Performance art, comedy and poetry on its own wasn’t going to be enough to sustain a venue of that size seven days a week, especially when Deep Ellum was still brand new and Elm Street was uncharted territory,” says Liles.
Bands like the New Bohemians, fronted by Edie Brickell (who’s now married to Paul Simon), got their start there. Brickell and the New Bohemians were fresh out of high school at Booker T. Washington and were packing out the venue.
“They started getting hugely popular, and Dada became their preferred venue in Deep Ellum,” says Liles. “They would play every other week in the backyard there, and would regularly draw 800 to 900 people.”
From that point, Dada became known as an incubator for emerging talent, oftentimes for kids who were fresh out of high school or attending the University of North Texas’ music school. “The Denton music scene was huge then. Club Dada was the Deep Ellum outpost for Denton,” says Liles.
Ten Hands from Denton played Dada regularly. “Ten Hands became equally as popular as the New Bohemians. Between those two groups, they started bringing a shit-ton of people to Dada, and those two groups more than anyone else solidified Dada as a live music destination,” Liles adds.
“There was a need for venues for local musicians to play, so we primarily were booking local musicians from the very beginning,” says Border. “We would get national acts to come through, but we were very interested in promoting the local music scene.”
To combat the dearth of live music venues in Deep Ellum, Border says Dada would book four or five acts each night just to allow everyone to get some stage time. Dada enjoyed massive success as the venue for the young, emerging music scene.
“The thing that nobody really ever talks about, the people that made Deep Ellum happen, the people that came down there and supported it each weekend were all kids from the suburbs,” says Liles.
A band called End Over End, which regularly played at Dada, was from Highland Park. A band called Three on a Hill was from Carrollton.
“All these people came together and brought their tribes into this empty warehouse district in Dallas and created an art culture,” remembers Liles. “They were in on this secret, this subversive art thing that was happening in Dallas which at the time was a really, really conservative city.”
The original owners held onto it for 17 years, growing with the burgeoning neighborhood and expanding Dada by taking over adjacent storefronts. As Dada built a reputation in Dallas, it also started becoming known by national artists as the place to play a pop-up show for a small audience when they were in town.
“We did a lot of secret shows,” says Chris Howell, a bartender from 1993 to 2003. “We had Joe Walsh [of the Eagles] step out of a limo with his guitar and get up on stage and play. I think we had a salsa band playing that night so there’s Joe Walsh playing for a salsa band crowd.” Howell says the Black Crowes, Blues Traveler, the Jayhawks, and Cheap Trick all played secret shows there also.
Howell attributes Dada’s success and longevity to its overall warm, welcoming vibe. “It was very familial, it was very home. The staff and the bands and the people who came there felt that way. I know the neighborhood felt that way because people from other clubs, when they got off work they would come to Dada.”
Moody Fuqua, the current creative director of Dada, went there to hang out in 1994 and '95 as a young teenager. “My brother was a big hippie, so I’d go see Dead Thing, Little Sister and Soul Hat,” he says. “Dead Thing was a Grateful Dead tribute band and they’d pack out that patio every Sunday.”
After the original owners sold Dada, the club changed hands several times over the years as Deep Ellum's fortunes waned and businesses closed all around the neighborhood. Dada ultimately closed in 2009, before being revived by its present owners in January 2011. Fuqua took on his role there last April.
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Looking back, he remembers the patio being the major draw for Club Dada during its original incarnation and still considers it so today. “There isn’t an outdoor venue of that size in Deep Ellum” says Fuqua. That's why he’s been working on upping the appeal of the courtyard again and making it a destination that bands want to play. So far, he’s expanded the stage and added a roof over it, and added more seating and lighting in anticipation of the programming that will soon be filling the outdoor space again.
Even with upgrades like moving the bar from the center of the room to the left wall, painting over original murals and changing the location of both the interior and exterior stages, Dada has retained its original allure. It’s still one of the best incubators in Dallas for acts that are well-loved and ones that are soon-to-be-known to play alongside touring performers.
Fuqua’s long-term goal is to keep upgrading Dada and also to restore the aspects that made it a success in the early days. He says starting next year, he wants it to open in the early afternoon and be open seven days a week. That necessitates adding an outdoor bar and more bathrooms, and he’s working on bringing music in more often too. Fuqua envisions Dada as not only the legendary venue for live music but also the favorite neighborhood hangout.
“That’s the way Dada used to be,” he says.