Deep Sixed

At precisely 2:38 p.m. on December 28, U.S. District Judge Harlin DeWayne Hale officially pronounced Trees dead. With a few dry, muttered words offered after a few moments of silent deliberation, Hale informed the attorney representing the owners of the venerable live-music venue in Deep Ellum that they were to turn over the keys to landlord Morton Rachofsky no later than 3 p.m. on January 2. It was, to put it mildly, an anti-climactic demise for Trees. The place had survived hundreds of rock bands that tried to reduce it to splinters--there was the night Nirvana stopped playing and nearly caused a riot, the night Marilyn Manson chucked a live chicken into the crowd and on and on--yet its eventual demise was delivered by a middle-aged man in a black robe who does his business surrounded by pale blue walls illuminated by fluorescent lights. After 15 years on Elm Street, Trees got the axe.

In truth, it came as a surprise to no one. The owners--among them Whit Meyers and brothers Brandt and Brady Wood, collectively known as the Entertainment Collaborative--had been leasing the club from Rachofsky on a month-to-month basis since November 2004. In October 2005, the Entertainment Collaborative, which also owns the Deep Ellum restaurant the Green Room, downtown eatery Jeroboam and Deep Ellum club Gypsy Tea Room, filed for bankruptcy, its collective receipts having dwindled to a fraction of what they had been three years earlier, when the annual gross totaled well above $2 million.

But business had been bad for a long time, and many people will offer many reasons why. Jeroboam, once a bright star in Dallas' glitzy dining galaxy, had turned into a black hole, especially after September 11, 2001, when business travelers and conventioneers stopped coming to town. Umlaut, EC's downtown club on Main Street, just across from Jeroboam, went from hot spot to not spot within a year of its 2002 opening. The Green Room lost its longtime star chef, Marc Cassel, to Hotel ZaZa in March 2005. Trees' heyday had faded to dim twilight with the demise of a vibrant local music scene once populated by critical darlings with major-label deals.

And then there had been the severe beating of David Cunniff at the Gypsy Tea Room on July 25, 2004, during an Old 97's concert--the last place anyone ever expected any violence. Even back then, those who had been part of the downtown scene for years predicted that when skinhead Jesse Chaddock savaged Cunniff, he crippled a business too.

It was just a matter of time before one of EC's properties would disappear. The EC owes some $18,000 to the Texas comptroller. All of its ventures have been for sale since the bankruptcy filing in October; there were, however, no takers. Trees was the first to go, says EC's bankruptcy attorney John Leslie, because it "was the least viable" of the EC's entities and because "the lack of interest on the part of any buyers was a concern." No one would dispute the fact that Trees was no longer a destination. Toward the end, the bands that used to draw lines that snaked out the door couldn't even pack the bathroom. On New Year's Eve, says Whit Meyers, Pimpadelic brought in maybe 200 people. If that.

"People love the place," Meyers says. "They have great memories of Deep Ellum from when they were 25, 30 years old or whatever. But it's like Yogi Berra said: 'People don't go there anymore, it's too crowded.' The whole idea it's vacant and dangerous and everything's closed has become a self-fulfilling prophecy."

So perhaps the closing of Trees last week was inevitable, a clearing of the books so that the Entertainment Collaborative could exist a little while longer, at least until someone comes along with pockets deep enough to pull the thing out of the ditch. Its closing caught no one off guard, save for those former Deep Ellum regulars who long ago abandoned that part of town for the safer, cleaner climes of...well, just about anywhere else than Deep Ellum, which has garnered a bad reputation in recent years as a violent neighborhood where cars are broken into, girls are groped and guys will occasionally get shot to death.

Had only Trees closed its doors in the final weeks of 2005, perhaps there would have been a tiny funeral and a brief period of mourning before folks got back to business. But four days before Christmas, Club Dada, which sits just across Elm Street from Trees, also went dark because its owner, Steven Shin, owes a lot of people a lot of money. To landlord Don Cass, he owes some $41,000 in back rent, according to people familiar with Shin's lease. And to the state comptroller, he owes almost $18,000 in mixed beverage taxes and another $816 in sales tax. His liquor license has also been suspended. Longtime employees and bands scheduled to play Dada had no idea the club had shut down till they arrived to find the place papered with seizure notices from the state.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky