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

Page 4 of 5

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.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jeff Liles