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.

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

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