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 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

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