The King of Clubs
Pat Kirkwood always knew how to throw a party, which is why the Cellar defined nightlife in Fort Worth, Houston, and other Texas cities.
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IN THE SHADOW OF THE BRIGHTEST MOON in a century, a steady stream of casually dressed older folks, a few with walkers and canes, shuffle into a suite at the Green Oaks Inn in Fort Worth. Drinks are drunk, cigarettes smoked — rituals of closure in the last hours of the party of their lives. Greeting guests is the evening’s host, Pat Kirkwood, a lanky 72-year-old whose black suit, black shirt, black tie, and black alligator shoes are a startling contrast to his pale pink skin and snow-white ponytail and matching beard. If not for the odd phrase snatched from conversation (“There is no remission”), you wouldn’t know he’s dying. If he’s going to go, he figured, he may as well have one last fling with the friends and acquaintances who made his nightclub chain, the Cellar, the coolest in Texas.
And so they have come: all the old bouncers, managers, musicians, waitresses, lawyers (Tarrant County district attorney Tim Curry phoned in regrets; he might have to run for reelection), and assorted hangers-on. A black and white film of the beach-based 1951 Daytona 500 plays on the television set in one room; Kirkwood, the only Texan in the race, vies for the lead until the sand jams his gearbox. Next door, on another TV, is a grainy color film shot in the early sixties by Jimmy Hill, then the manager of the Fort Worth Cellar; most of it was taken during the Artists and Models Ball on Halloween night in 1962. Kirkwood is visible in it too, as are several female dancers in various stages of undress. “There’s my ex-wife,” Hill says with a chuckle.
At a table in the corner, onetime moonshine smuggler Don “Thunder Road” Johnson plunks down next to Kirkwood and tells stories about flying around Texas on a four-day drunk, while Chuck “Elf” Bolding, who managed the Cellar in Dallas and now supervises security guards at the Las Vegas Hilton, recalls the nights that an underage Stevie Ray Vaughan played the club. “We had our own law,” Bolding says. “It was whatever Pat wanted.”
“Hey, Pat, ” a voice shouts from the other room. “What happened the night one guy shot another guy in the head and the guy who got shot went to jail?”
Those were the days.
THE ORIGINAL CELLAR, a basement joint at the corner of Tenth and Main streets in downtown Fort Worth, was a beatnik coffeehouse, a trendy concept when it opened in 1959. By the time I was old enough to sneak out of the house, it had moved to a second-story walk-up three blocks from the Tarrant County courthouse, and no matter what the menu said, it was no longer serving just coffee, if you know what I mean. There were Cellars too in downtown Dallas (on Commerce Street, across from the KLIF building), in downtown Houston (in Market Square), and, briefly, near the River Walk in San Antonio, until officials of the area’s five Air Force bases pressured it into closing.
For as long as they were in business — last call in Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston was 1972, 1972, and 1973, respectively — the Cellars defined nightlife. They functioned as all-purpose hangouts with a hint of biker bar, semi-legit walks on the wild side that were as edgy as it got in Texas in the swinging sixties. The clientele they attracted would be considered retro hip today: low-grade hoodlums left over from the Jacksboro Highway Dixie Mafia, off-duty cops, ink-stained newspaper reporters, penny-ante hustlers and gamblers, and the occasional out-of-town celebrity, from tough-guy actor Lee Marvin to astronaut Alan Shepard.
To a fresh-faced sixteen-year-old looking for cheap thrills, no place was as deliciously threatening or as sinfully inviting. Walk in and there was no turning back. You’d give your dollar to the ex-con working the register, slip into the smoky haze, and move instinctively toward the booming beats. Dark was a theme: The walls were painted black, except for the slogans painted in white letters (“Evil Spelled Backwards Is Live,” “You Must Be Weird to Be Here”); the staff was dressed in black; the interior lighting was pretty much a single red bulb hanging from the ceiling. Customers sat on large pillows on the floor. At one end of the room was a bandstand from which music blared until dawn. And it was dawn: The Cellar stayed open all night, winking at the law that said nightclubs had to close at midnight, because, you know, no liquor, beer, or wine was served, though I’d have sworn I was getting a buzz from the fake rum and coke brought by the waitress wearing only a bra and panties — at that point, the most exposed flesh I’d ever seen close-up on a woman other than my mother.
I knew enough not to get too familiar. Behind every waitress was a bouncer, part of the burliest, surliest security crew enforcing the peace anywhere in Tarrant County, and he was eager to kick my skinny ass down the stairs if I gave him a reason. I wanted to stay, because on some nights, in the wee hours, a waitress might fling off her underwear in front of the bandstand, which, back in those days, was outside the law. My friends and I figured the owner really had some pull. We had no idea.
Among its other charms, the Cellar’s all-night policy honed the chops of performers like Stevie, Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, guitar ace Bugs Henderson, a truly original street drummer and rapper named Cannibal Jones (who changed his name to Bongo Joe when he moved to San Antonio), John Denver, and comedian George Carlin, who perfected his “seven dirty words” shtick at the Fort Worth Cellar; it also burnished the legends of characters like music director Johnny Carroll, a cult rockabilly star back in the fifties, and cats named Tiger, Tudy, and Hatchet, as well as a Beatles cover band called the Cellar Dwellers.
To keep the vibe going, Kirkwood laid down the law to his staff: “All policemen, all reporters, all pretty girls, all musicians, all doctors, all lawyers, and all our personal friends come in free and get free drinks forever.” Now and again there were raids, but they were part of the show. Whenever the red light on the ceiling started flashing and the band shifted into the theme from the Mickey Mouse Club, it meant the cops were on their way. I always wondered if Kirkwood called them himself to keep customers entertained. He certainly was a self-promoter: To keep the Cellar and his own name in the news, he planned publicity stunts like the outdoor cookout at Trinity Park at which his staff was going to roast geese near the Duck Pond. “We had to get arrested to get in the paper,” he says.
I remember him as an exceedingly polite and pleasant fellow, though there was also a less forgiving side to him. For all the hard-core types who thought of the Cellar as a second home, he was clear about the kind of people he wanted around. “No troublemakers, no queers, no pimps, no blacks, no narcotics,” he says. “Those were the rules. If you did anything else strange, you were welcome.” Undesirables were discouraged by a sign posted at the door announcing a cover charge of $1,000. Most people were charged only a dollar, but whenever a black man walked up, the bouncer invoked the policy — an unfortunate echo of Jim Crow.
I first reconnected with Kirkwood a year and a half ago in a trailer in the woods between Granbury and Glen Rose. It wasn’t his place, he was quick to tell me; it belonged to a friend, an independent oilman. His eyes were hidden behind mirrored sunglasses, and he was dressed from head to toe in black: guayabera shirt, dungarees, pointy-toed sharkskin Beatle boots. At first I didn’t notice the fancy hand-tooled silver-plated .45 automatic pistol resting on the table within his arm’s reach. “Pop always said if you’re going to marry a whore, it might as well be a pretty one,” he said, flashing a sweet-dimpled smile.
Pop was W. C. “Pappy” Kirkwood, who operated the 2222 Club, a notorious and wholly illicit gambling casino, out of their house, a sprawling white stucco Spanish colonial mansion high on a bluff above the Jacksboro Highway. Its patrons were high rollers from all across Texas: wildcatters, pols, civic leaders. Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the U.S. House, liked to sneak away from Bonham for a little excitement whenever he came home to visit his constituents. Pappy’s wife, a trick rodeo rider named Fay Leberman, often entertained her close friend Dick Kleberg. Kirkwood recalls his father discreetly closing the gates whenever Nenetta Burton Carter, the wife of Amon Carter, the most powerful man in Fort Worth, hankered to play roulette with her girlfriends.
“My daddy was a man of integrity,” Kirkwood rasped, swelling with pride. “He appointed police chiefs, all kinds of things like that, because nobody down there could trust anybody. They’d go to him and he’d tell them the deal straight up. One time Mayor F. E. Deen called Pop and said, ‘By nine o’clock this morning I’ve got to appoint a new chief of police. Who should I appoint?’ He’s asking a well-known gambler running a well-known gambling joint.” Kirkwood bent over and laughed hard.
“Every year on Christmas Day,” he continued, “one of my chores was passing out gifts to cops. If they were ‘harness bulls’ and wore regular uniforms, they got a bottle of whiskey. If they had stripes — corporals, sergeants, whatever — they got a turkey. If they had hardware — captains, for instance — they’d get a ham. There’d be twenty cars lined up. I’d be running in the house, taking things out, back and forth. I thought it was hard, boring work. And then I got to thinking about it: Pop was introducing them to me. Boy, did that pay off a thousand times in the Cellar days.” Before burying him in 1983, Kirkwood slipped Pappy’s favorite pair of dice into his pocket. “He might run into a live one on the way,” he reasoned.
Kirkwood himself was a live one of a different sort — a witness to history, it turned out. I had come to see him to talk about the Kennedy assassination, and he obliged by recalling Jack Ruby as “a Jewish wannabe hoodlum and speed freak who was like all the other joint owners from here to Casablanca” and “a pest who came to the Cellar on Saturday nights after his own place closed to hire away my waitresses.” He then confirmed that Lee Harvey Oswald had washed dishes at the San Antonio Cellar upon his return from Mexico during the middle two weeks of November 1963, which prompted him to conclude that there was no conspiracy. “The mob is going to strand their hit man on the border, penniless, on the verge of doing his hit? I don’t think so. Here’s a guy who’d kill the president so that everyone would know he existed. It was the dawn of the celebrity age. That’s really about all there is to Oswald.”
He went into great detail about the circumstances that led seventeen off-duty Secret Service agents to drink at the Fort Worth Cellar until as late as five-thirty on the morning of November 22. The record remains unclear as to whether any of the president’s protective detail had hangovers on that fateful day because after two week’s worth of interrogation, Kirkwood finally sent the Secret Service away convinced that the club only served alcohol-flavored drinks, not the real thing. He neglected to tell them about the alcoholic “specials” given away to VIPs.
We talked of other things too, like his unsuccessful campaign for sheriff in Tarrant County in 1982 (he vowed to personally call on every criminal in Fort Worth and suggest they relocate to Dallas) and more recent escapades that were no less weird. By his own estimate, Kirkwood was involved in as many as 91 dope deals between 1988 and 1995, piloting small planes from Mexico to the U.S. on 29 missions, each time ratting out the smugglers to the feds. Just doing his part for the drug war, he explained. “I was asked in every [law enforcement] office what my motives were,” he said. “I replied that it is a chance to take advantage of rewards offered by the government, to be in Mexico, and to utilize skills acquired over the years.” One of those skills was flying; he’d been a student of the great American Airlines pilot Stormy Mangham.
Alas, his career as a double agent was relatively brief. After a series of runs for the FBI and U.S. Customs, he says, he was stiffed out of $4.2 million in fees and expenses he was promised for his services — a claim generally supported by Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Mike Cochran, who sat in on dope deal discussions between Kirkwood and the feds. “There’s no honor anymore,” Kirkwood says, spewing out the words with disgust. “You can’t take a man at his word.” A source familiar with the back-and-forth has another theory: “You can’t go cowboying around and running up expenses without authorization.”
Whatever the case, Kirkwood could sure use the money; he’s nearly broke. Medical bills are still piling up from his wife’s kidney transplant last year, and he has considerable bills of his own. Last summer he was diagnosed with acute adenocarcinoma, a type of lung cancer, and it has spread like wildfire. Doctors gave him a one in three chance of living two years. “The best thing they can do,” he said, “is extend my existence.”
The last party at the Green Oaks reinforces that inevitability, just as it affirms the existence of an institutional memory. One look at the helicopter flyboys, hot mamas, and vaguely recalled figures of all types in attendance and I realize what an exceptionally wild bunch the regulars were. And they are paying for it, judging by the bloated faces, cautious steps, endless talk of strokes and heart attacks, and old friends referenced in the past tense. There were also priceless encounters, such as the one involving two musicians who were reintroduced after many years. The first one shook hands genially with the second, but when the second was out of earshot, the first turned to me and said, “That sumbitch stole my amp, and if it wasn’t for Hatchet, I’d have killed him.” Fortunately, bygones are bygones; anyway, the amp thief is too emaciated to beat up now.
At around midnight, Arvel Stricklin, an unsung Fort Worth guitarist who has set up a Web site dedicated to Cellar lore (www.arvel.com), puts a CD on a boombox for mood music. It is The Cellar Tapes Volume One, and it features tracks culled from recordings made at the nightclub’s Cowtown location. “Some blues, some rock, Johnny Carroll jumpin’ in, some dancin’ girls, and the ol’ shuffle and you’ve got a buzz and it’s too dark to see who, but they’re playin’ that jazz and it’s gettin’ late,” Stricklin says. The music fills in the blanks, and the room comes alive. The smoke, the red light, nightlife as it was meant to be: It all comes back, accompanied by belly laughs and shrill shrieks.
Some time after, with wild stories swirling in the air, a former bouncer who looks every bit of four hundred pounds in his giant overalls falls from his chair and passes out briefly, signaling my own last call. “We have got to have one more next year,” Kirkwood says as I exit, positively beaming from having the time of his life (and a few glasses of whiskey). “And if I’m not there, go ahead and start without me.”