Nightlife

Wits End Has Reached Its End in Deep Ellum

The Dallas devil metal group Silvertonguedevil performed at Wits End's annual Punk vs. Metal show in 2017.
The Dallas devil metal group Silvertonguedevil performed at Wits End's annual Punk vs. Metal show in 2017. Roderick Pullum
Another Deep Ellum music institution is being pushed out of the neighborhood.

One of the managers of Wits End, located at the corner of Elm and North Crowdus Street, confirmed that the music venue and rooftop bar is closing because the building's owners, Westdale Property Management, refused to renew its lease.

True to its name, the venue couldn't help but go out with a joke. Wits End announced its closure on Facebook with a photo of the building with a Spirit Halloween store banner over its sign and the caption "Too soon?"

"We put about 10 years in there," says Wits End general manager Stephan Arnold. "So I'm a little irritated with it."

The colorful club hosted a wide variety of music and live acts on its stage in its decade in Deep Ellum, featuring electronic and hip-hop groups on its patio roof, punk vs. metal band battle shows, live comedy and sideshow burlesque acts like the Deadly Sins Burlesque troupe. The wacky facade of the building added an eclectic look and feel to the free-wheeling musical atmosphere of Deep Ellum. Even Wits End's friendly bouncer M. "Moe" Oliver London became an icon in the neighborhood from the venue's opening to his death in 2013.

"The venue itself always brought in people," Arnold says. "We had all kinds of stuff going on there. There was something different on the weekend with DJs, bands or a burlesque show."

click to enlarge
The Wits End Facebook page announced its closing with a photo of the building with a Spirit Halloween store banner plastered over its sign.
Screenshot from Facebook
Janie Slash from the Deadly Sins Burlesque show says the group performed there almost as long as Wits End has been open.

"Deep Ellum is losing an amazing venue that gave so much to the creative community," Slash says. "Deadly Sins Burlesque has been there for nine years, and it is an honor to call them our home."

Joe Schillage, the drummer for the Denton death metal band Lament Configuration, played at Wits End several times with his current band and the group Monogamizer. He says the place was laid out so every band had the chance to be heard not just by the crowd by but the people walking in front of the building.

"It was like an old-school feel, the way the venue was set up," Schillage says. "It's got a rooftop patio and it's got a stage right by the door. That's like a super old school philosophy when it comes to performance. You'd see that stuff in Austin like six or seven years ago. You'd just try to get people to walk in off the street. They would hear you off the street, and they'd come in and check you out. That's the goal."

For some regulars, Wits End was more than just a place to grab a drink and catch some live music, Arnold says.

"We've been a staple in that neighborhood for quite a while," Arnold says. "A lot of people felt it was their home bar. We'd been open on holidays. We did Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for everybody. For those who had no family or something like that, they always considered it a home away from people. People could feel safe in there even with all the crap going on sometimes."

Schillage says one of his best memories of Wits End was the memorial they held in April for musician Alfonte Cooks, who died earlier this year.

"They played all of the music that he loved, and they obviously knew the guy," Schillage says. "There was a real sense of community for the people who were there."

Arnold says Westgate has not given the venue a reason for its decision not to renew its deal with Wits End owner Matt Adkins. Westdale has been buying up and reimaging a lot of the properties in Deep Ellum since before Wits End opened its doors.

In 2015, the Dallas Economic Development Committee gave Westdale a $1.5 million incentive deal to "revitalize" blocks near Malcolm X Boulevard and Main Street. Since then, they've reopened places such as The Bomb Factory (now called The Factory at Deep Ellum) while places like The Door and Bucks Burnett's 8-Track Museum are gone.
Performer and Deadly Sins Burlesque founder Janie Slash lies on a bed of nails during the show at Wits End in Deep Ellum in 2019.
Nikki Arnold

"They haven't told us anything," Arnold says. "I just found out yesterday. Somebody in the neighborhood told us they are going to spend $3 million to revamp the building, but they didn't say what for."

Arnold says he suspects the recent rise in crime in the neighborhood didn't help with its deal. Two men were killed and three were wounded when a shooting broke out in the street in front of Wits End's building in May.

"It probably didn't help having the shootings and all the other crap right outside our doors," Arnold says. "We had 13 bullet holes in our building. That corner was always a hotspot for trouble. It may be one of the reasons they're not doing it."

The owners of Wits End are looking for a new place to relocate but the rise in real estate prices is making it difficult.

"We'd still like to have a place for music, a patio and a game room for pool tables and stuff, but the price hasn't been righ,t and we've already been paying for quite a bit," Arnold says. "We haven't found anything we've been in love with yet."

Slash says she hopes they can find a new location with a landlord who can appreciate what they can offer to a community that thrives on live music.

"I have so many amazing memories from there and met so many wonderful people," she says. "I'm sad to see the Deep Ellum location closing and can't wait to see what the future holds for Wits."

A representative of Westdale could not be reached for comment.
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.