On a Friday afternoon in October 1991, 33-year-old Don Nedler was handed the keys to the building located at 2424 Swiss Ave. after paying $12,000 for first and last month’s rent. This weekend, the business he built there, Lizard Lounge, will celebrate 25 years as a mecca for Dallas' rave and goth communities with a party deejayed by Mix Master Mike of the Beastie Boys.
“We stay relevant because we created a live music venue for DJs years before anyone else knew or realized that DJs would be the rock stars of the new millennium," Nedler says from behind his desk at the venue, right next to the desk of his partner Leo Del Hierro. "I knew it ... I used to tell people back in the '90s, 'DJs are going to be rock stars.'"
Nedler’s music IQ was first forged as a DJ, and later as director of entertainment services for the Houston-based McFadden Ventures, for whom Del Hierro also worked. During his nearly eight-year tenure with McFadden, Nedler hired and trained DJs at about 40 clubs under the company's umbrella.
As Nedler traveled to different markets for his job he began to get a sense of music consumption trends throughout the country. The McFadden executives expected him to implement a strict music programming platform, but Nedler learned that the clubs did better when he provided a loose outline for the DJs and then stepped back and let them work.
“I got a master’s degree in musicology through that job,” he says. “I learned so much. Every city is different, every night is different, so it’s almost impossible to tell a DJ what to play. The real key was that I hired talented DJs. To the corporate bosses I had manuals and I had formats and it was all bullshit.”
Eventually Nedler decided he had enough management experience and music knowledge to open his own club. Lizard Lounge's first location opened in Houston in '89. "I leased an old Chinese restaurant and really didn’t do anything to it but demo it all and created a big open space," Nedler says. "It was just a big dance hall … a square room with a sunken dance floor and I had no money for lights. I had one strobe light that hung in the middle of the room that would just blink randomly and that was it.”
Nedler says good music and a good location contributed to Lizard Lounge's early success, but he makes no qualms about the fact that the crowd at his fledgling venue was also largely fueled by vice.
“It was an after-hours club. It opened at 2 a.m. and closed at 8 a.m. I was sitting in the middle of about five other big clubs. They changed the law in Houston to where if you had a liquor license you had to close at 2 a.m. I saw an opportunity because ecstasy was becoming very widespread," he says. "People didn’t want to go home; they didn’t want to go to Denny’s or IHOP. They had drugs and we had orange juice and Evian water. It was off the wall; it was insane. I [eventually] had competition. A lot of other clubs opened up, but we ruled the market.”
Lizard Lounge was able to expand rapidly. Just four months after the Houston location opened, Nedler opened one in Austin at the urging of customers and friends.
“I went to Austin and there was a club available called Halls. It was a legendary nightclub. The guy needed money to pay his liquor tax that he was personally liable for. He needed $25,000, so I wrote him a check and took over his lease," Nedler says. "A year went by and we had two clubs that were very successful, so in 1991, I started looking for a location in Dallas."
In Deep Ellum, Nedler planned to take the same minimalist approach that had worked so well in Houston and Austin. The original floor plans for the Dallas home of Lizard Lounge were simple. They'd found a 4,500-square-foot building on Main Street — now occupied by Curtain Club — and planned to create a huge dance floor, bring in talented DJs and just sit back and rake in the cash.
But Nedler ultimately ended up with a venue triple the size. He remembers visiting the space several years before he leased it, in 1988, when it was an upscale nightclub called Empire. “I was here on McFadden Ventures business and my goal was to book Rick Squillante, who was DJing here on a Thursday night," Nedler says. "I had never seen this building; it was hard to find. I walked in and it blew my mind. I was like, 'Holy shit.' If you had told me three years later that I would own this place I would have laughed at you."
The massive structure, nearly 14,000 square feet, had been constructed in 1899 as a trolley repair station and has housed a variety of businesses since, including Empire. Around the turn of the 20th century it was a venue called the Grand Crystal Palace Theatre; just prior to Nedler's ownership it was a strip club called The Gold Club.
Soon after acquiring the building, Nedler discovered that it had its downsides. Lizard Lounge sits almost directly under Central Expressway in a vacant warehouse district. It's right in between neighborhoods with foot traffic, but it doesn't see much foot traffic itself. These challenges made it that much harder to operate such an enormous building.
But Lizard Lounge was eventually able to overcome these challenges by finding a niche within the electronic dance music genre. At first, Nedler's plan for the music programming at Lizard Lounge was more eclectic. “I was really into hip-hop,” he says. "Digable Planets, De La Soul, House Of Pain — we would book those acts and the first Lizard Lounge played nothing but hip-hop.”
Del Hierro says that was typical of clubs at that time. “That was club music back in '89, '90. Public Enemy, N.W.A. — groups like that. Literally at 1 a.m. in a nightclub they’d be playing N.W.A.”
But as the electronic music scene in Dallas began to grow, Lizard Lounge found it necessary to change its focus. “I figured it out pretty quickly the niche we were going to fill was EDM, and I learned that from Jeff K,” Nedler says. “Jeff K did my Sunday nights and he did Edge Club on Saturday night. EDM hadn’t really exploded yet. It was Jeff K who turned me on to EDM and sent me in that direction. He’s an iconic guy in this town and had a huge influence on me. He was my guide."
The symbiotic relationship between Lizard Lounge and the Edge took the Dallas EDM scene to new heights.
“In 1991, when Lizard Lounge began, I was hosting and programming the Saturday night mix show on 94.5 the Edge, called Edge Club 94,” Jeff K says. “The Dallas club scene I wouldn’t say was behind the times, but they weren’t on the same wavelength of what we were trying to do. We found a real ally with Don Nedler and Lizard Lounge because he was willing to take a chance on a lot of these breaking artists of the day. Artists like The Prodigy and artists like Moby who were getting a lot of spins on the mix show. It really helped to give a legitimacy to our scene in Dallas.”
Ultimately one hand washed the other. “Don, myself, Lizard Lounge and the mix show worked in unison to, I dare say, foster the rave scene in Dallas," Jeff K says. "If you talk to someone that really knows the history of rave culture in America, Dallas is held in high regard because we had the ability to not only play the music on a major radio station, but we also had a venue like the Lizard Lounge where artists could come and perform."
Strategic partnerships with A-list promoters such as Full Access, Insomniac and AfterDark began to provide a constant funnel of talent. The byproduct has been the accumulation of an epic live show portfolio for Lizard Lounge. Almost every major EDM artist, including Paul Oakenfold, Moby, Benny Benassi, Paul Van Dyk, Borgeous, Steve Aoki and Markus Schulz, has performed there.
Although the venue has a deep international footprint they’ve also tended Dallas' talent. Strong, long-lasting relationships with resident DJs including Shaolin, Raydar, Bill Stanley and Joe Virus are evidence of that commitment. Nedler has also always looked for opportunities to do more, and in 1994 that mindset led to the formation of one of Lizard Lounge's most successful ventures, Sunday nights at The Church.
The name and concept was inspired by Carlos Menendez’s popular theme night at the Velvet Nightclub in Miami. Nedler had attended it during an unsuccessful foray into the Miami market, but he says Dallas' incarnation of The Church was one good thing that came out of it. The Church at Lizard Lounge became a mecca in its own right — this time for the world of industrial music, goth, fetish, body modification, suspension and all things deliciously weird.
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The Church has bred its own flagship events like the Dallas Fetish Ball organized by Courtney Crave, and Allen Falkner’s Freaks and Fetish Ball. "The Church is central to the gothic/alternative scene," Nedler says. "We built and created it, by instilling a sense of community in the venue, with customers, with the staff, with our traditional Thanksgiving dinner that we do, with the dog tags we give out. It’s definitely something that I’m really proud of."
The old building at 2424 Swiss Avenue has changed the lives of countless individuals. Partiers have met lifelong friends and even future spouses there. Artists who have been booked there have seen their careers go to new heights. Employees who started out with entry level jobs have built them into long-term careers and risen into management positions within the nightlife industry.
A twenty-five year career with the same company is an achievement no matter the line of work, but particularly when it pertains to the fickle nightlife industry. Nedler says none of it would have been possible without his right-hand man, Del Hierro, who joined the Lizard Lounge fold in the mid-'90s.
“Leo and I reconnected in 1996 and I hate to say this in front of Leo, but it’s true: I would not be here today if weren’t for my partnership with Leo D. I can tell you that with certainty. We would not be open."