The first thing Chris Savage saw when he walked onto the empty Kessler stage was his friend’s drum set. A stage light beamed down on the kit, illuminating the instrument and forming a single ray of light in an ocean of blackness. Graham “Rooftop” Brotherton would be a part of one more show.
The beloved drummer and Kessler Theater team member died on March 30 after a hard-fought battle with aggressive cancer. On Sunday, April 14, his friends, family and fellow artists gathered at The Kessler to honor him in a memorial filled with laughter, stories and music.
Rooftop played drums for the band Mercury Rocket, but many knew him as the Swiss Army knife of The Kessler, a man who could be seen working the door, setting up for shows or breaking up fights without throwing a single punch.
“Graham did it all,” Kessler artistic director Jeff Liles says. “He was the glue for this team.”
Liles knew Rooftop long before he asked him to join the Kessler team in 2011, but the two grew close during Rooftop’s tenure at the theater, during which time it grew from a revitalization project to one of the most vaunted venues in Dallas.
“Early on, I knew I wanted this place to be laid-back, personal and fun, and he made it that way,” Liles says. “You can’t have The Kessler without Graham.”
Pat Ramseur, the artist behind The Kessler’s posters, agrees.
“Graham was a beautiful soul,” Ramseur says. “He was always positive, always happy to be wherever he was. You could never put out his light.”
Rooftop was born in San Clemente, California, in 1971. He grappled with health complications from an early age but never let those challenges prevent him from making music. His younger brother, Ryan Ybarra, remembers the great lengths Rooftop would go just to hear the sounds Ybarra made.
“He was hard of hearing, so he would put his head on the piano, or bite down on the guitar to feel the vibrations,” Ybarra says. “And he played the drums as loud as he possibly could.”
Rooftop also suffered from Fanconi anemia, a rare genetic disease affecting the bone marrow. Ybarra says his brother was a “puzzle for doctors,” and he recalls the hundreds of surgeries Rooftop endured.
“It was so frustrating, because you see how talented he was, but it’s hard to be a musician when you’re hooked up to all these machines,” Ybarra says. “Writing lyrics became his outlet, a way for him to express what he was going through.”
In 2015, Rooftop joined the band Mercury Rocket, a psychedelic rock group with a shoegaze twist. He balanced the band and his duties at The Kessler, where he was dubbed “Rooftop” by a bartender that night. Ybarra calls it an inside joke of some kind, and Liles says there’s no real rhyme or reason to the name. But it stuck.
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When he wasn’t manning the front, Rooftop would work the merch table, help with take-down and prevent the occasional fight.
“He became the unofficial bouncer,” Ramseur says. “There were two other bouncers there at the time, but they didn’t do things like Graham. Graham could talk even the most belligerent guy out of a fight.”
And a call from Rooftop meant it was showtime.
“Every day, Rooftop would get to the theater at 4 o'clock and give me a call to tell me he was there, ready to set up,” Liles says. “Those calls were always my cue. It’s how I knew it was time to get my act together.”
Sunday’s event honored that commitment and celebrated Rooftop’s life. Musicians, artists, friends and family were all in attendance, and each had a Rooftop story. Ybarra, always impressed by his older brother’s popularity, loved seeing the city turn out for the man he jokingly called “The Unofficial Mayor of Dallas.”
“That was the best part: seeing all these lives he touched,” he says. “People gravitated to him.”
Many took the stage to eulogize their friend, brother and coworker, including Rooftop’s uncle, Ananda.
“He could’ve easily been lured onto a dark road of resentment and bitterness,” Ananda said to Rooftop’s roomful of admirers. “But he wanted love, and he instinctively knew that to get it, he had to give it.”
Savage, the former guitarist and singer for The Buck Pets, was one of the artists who took the stage to perform in a tribute to his friend. But he almost couldn’t go through with it.
“I saw those drums up there, and it suddenly became real,” Savage says. “It made it a reality that he was gone.”
One of the last times Savage saw Rooftop, the drummer had just gotten the new kit. He made Savage walk out to his car with him so he could show him this new set.
“That’s what will stay in my mind,” Savage says. “That conversation, his smile and just talking about the drums with him for a few minutes in the sunshine.”
When planning the memorial and its music, Liles called Savage. He wanted him to play a specific song, a somber tuned called “Hey Sunshine.” But Savage resisted.
“I didn’t know if it was the right time. It’s kind of a bittersweet song, and I didn’t want to make people feel lower.”
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Yet Liles insisted. He knew it’d be uplifting.
“Jeff was right,” Savage says. “When I got out there, I looked out at all these people that were drawn to Graham. And I knew it wasn’t about me; it was about Graham. About all his goodness.”
There is a lyric in the song that goes, “Hey sunshine, try to stay in the sky.” Savage points to that line when reminiscing on the impact Rooftop had on him and so many others in Dallas.
“The song was just right because it’s about carrying on, about hope. I think he would have approved.”