With the Cellar, what’s legend and what’s real …” said Giles McCrary, trailing off, implying that they’re hard to tell apart. He’s made it his job to figure that out, though.
The genial, bearded 60-year-old wasn’t referring to the bar that currently operates near TCU. Instead, he was talking about the coffee shop/nightclub that flourished in downtown Fort Worth in the 1960s and was home (in some cases, literally) to some of the biggest names in Texas music, along with legendary nightlife and a colorful owner.
The Cellar was established in 1959 by Pat Kirkwood, the flamboyant former racecar driver who won championships in the earliest days of NASCAR. Officially, it was a coffeehouse that served no liquor, which is why it was allowed to stay open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Unofficially, customers with the right connections could obtain liquor or almost anything else there. The connections were key; otherwise, patrons might wind up with rum-flavored Cokes.
“High-school kids would think they were getting a drink, but they were getting McCormick’s,” said McCrary, referring to the brand of flavoring extract. “And then they would act drunk. It was a psychological thing.”
For four years now, McCrary has been working on a documentary film entitled You Must Be Weird or You Wouldn’t Be Here, combing through the memories of the musicians, employees, and regular customers who populated the place. His extensive contacts with the former denizens of the Cellar come from his wife Jaci, who visited the place often as a teenager, dated several musicians there, and got to know the regulars well.
His work continues in a small upstairs room at his house in Fort Worth’s Overton Woods neighborhood, where note cards on a bulletin board contain chapter headings for the film — phrases like “Sex,” “Trouble,” “Racism,” and “Forbidden Fruit.” After all this time, and after a potentially catastrophic setback, he now believes he can finish his project within the next few months.
McCrary is originally from Post, the West Texas town that was founded as a utopian community by the breakfast cereal manufacturer C.W. Post, who bought the land sight unseen from his office in Fort Worth and hoped to revolutionize cloud-seeding and farming techniques there.
McCrary’s father, Giles Sr., served as mayor of the town for more than 20 years. “It was an easy place to live,” McCrary said. “It’s easier to feel isolated in a big city. But I wanted the variety of a big city.”
That meant Fort Worth, where McCrary’s paternal grandfather, I.N. McCrary, served as mayor during World War II. As a boy, Giles made frequent trips to the city to visit relatives. “We went to the zoo a lot,” he said. “It was what you did.”
McCrary got to know the city better as a student at Texas Christian University in the 1970s. He dreamed a common dream, with an uncommon twist. “I wanted to be a rock star with a big black mustache,” he said. “I learned how to play guitar, but I wasn’t good enough, and I couldn’t grow the mustache.”
However, the dream did lead him to make his one visit to the Cellar, in 1970. “It was a dark and scary place,” he remembered. “If I’d been a Fort Worth native, I probably would have gone back at some point, but being from a small town, it was too much for me. I left quickly.”
At the same time, Jaci (pronounced “Jackie”) was frequenting the Cellar as an emancipated minor who had moved to Fort Worth from Dallas to follow a boyfriend. “I was raised by my grandparents,” she said. “I was going through a rebellious phase.”
She and Giles didn’t meet until many years later. It was even longer before their experiences inspired them to make a film about the club.
Most infamous of the “must go to places” in Ft. Worth for Texas teen youth in the ’60’s. Thousands of youthful farmers, rancher/stockmen attending the annual “Fort Worth Fat Stock Show”. Right of passage for a lot of those FFA kids, never got to go myself, but listened to all their stories. Now we know, McCormicks—very cool. Thank you Giles and Jaci, I ALWAYS wanted to go. L.O., PHS ’65
I was a Cellar Dweller at the original Cellar that was under where the convention center now stands. I literally lived at the Cellar for eight months during it’s first year in business. I worked for Kirkwood as a musician for four years off and on and probably know him and the Cellar’s early history better than anyone now alive.
Man, how I would love to buy you dinner and hear some of those stories. We spent many a late night at the Dallas Cellar, right across from the “ABSOLUTELY NO PARKING!!” flashing sign at KLIF radio.
I worked at the cellar in the late 60’s and Pat’s other business at the time the Benbrook marina. I have many fond memories of those days.
The CELLAR was ahead of it’s time as a counter culture club. Looks like the perfect place to conduct a teenage version of the MKULTRA “Midnight Climax” operation. Did you come across anything about or connections between: Jack Ruby? Lee Harvey Oswald? The movie Naughty Dallas? How much cooperation did Pat Kirkwood get from the authorities? The backgrounds of his bouncers? The Secret Service Agents partying into the morning the day JFK was assassinated? Some have posed the idea that the whole “Hippie” phenomenon in the 60’s was a government sponsored psychological warfare operation. So hip and kool, yet no blacks and bouncers that would have fit in at Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club. Jack Ruby boasted connections at Reprise Records. J.D. Tippit was in Top Ten Records in Dallas minutes before he was murdered. EVIL spelled backwards is LIVE?
I went there for a while and started when I was 17. My brother was a bouncer there so I was a regular. I really miss those times. Great music and I made friends with the waitresses and one night went to Johnny Carroll’s house that night.
I did get drinks and was even a bouncer when Candy Barr came there. I remember Jimmy and Norm. I went to Pat’s house once with my brother. On the 4th of July I think is when we had the artist and models ball and at 5 in the morning went to Lake Worth to have fun on goat island. The vinison was really good. I miss the bands and the people and the gentleman who ran the kitchen. I even made drinks one night.
Does anyone know my big sister Pam Hawkins / Flower she was a waitress at The Cellar? She was a tall thin blonde with the best smile. She pasted when I was only 15 so i would love to hear your memories of her and photos if you have them.
My name is Mike. My brother Dave and I were Cellar Dwellers back in the early 60s. We were both Artists at the Cellar. Dave drew portraits of the Cellar dwellers as they sat and enjoyed the music. He also painted the epic 6 foot high FINGER that was behind the bandstand in the original Cellar. When the Cellar relocated a few blocks up the street, I painted all of the wording and graphics on the walls of that upstairs Cellar. I painted the 3 faces on the large wall opposite the bandstand and I also painted another rendition of the famous FINGER behind the bandstand. I painted the stairway scene that appeared just inside the glass door entrance to the upstairs Fort Worth Cellar. I was also responsible for painting all the lettering and graphics at the new Dallas and Houston Cellar locations. Each had the 3 faces and the Dayglow FINGER adorning the walls.
As everyone said above, the Cellar was the happening place, and most everybody in their 20s and 30s went there. I remember several of the Cellar personalities including Pat Kirkwood (Owner), Jimmie Hill (Manager), Johnny Carrol. Jack Estes, King Cannibal Jones, Jo-Jo (bouncer), Uncle Leo, Dub, Charlie, just to name a few of the regulars.
I have some photos taken of me and some of the paintings I did at all 3 Cellars. One includes a good friend of mine Pat Pridgeon as I was painting the FINGER in Houston. If I knew where to post them online, I would be happy to add them to some of the other nostalgic memorabilia pertaining to the Cellar.
I worked at the orginal Cellar the summer of 1962 as the portrait artist. I was “li’l Dave”. It was quite the place to hang out. I developed my love of folk music listening to Jack Estes’ singing. I recall Pat Kirkwood would sometimes be seen to be packing a shiny chrome .45 automatic. I painted the “finger” on the wall behind the bandstand. I got to witness a few undesirables get “escorted” out and up the stairs while I was there. It was a loose place but there were limits to what you could do down there. I have fond memories of the place.
I went to the Cellar a few times as youngster in the early 60s. It was downstairs at that time. As I recall everything was painted black. walls, ceiling, floor. Very dark place with only the paintings on the walls and writings in glow in the dark paint. The only two sayings that I really remember painted on the wall were “You must be weird or you wouldn’t be here” and “EVIL spelled backwards is LIVE !”. Sat on pillows on the floor with coffee tables to set our drinks and ashtray on. Waitresses dressed only in panties and bra served drinks. But as I recall….we usually brought in our own beer or liquor in a paper bag. Great music ….the one I remember most was “CC Rider”. Was a very rough looking place but I never had any trouble there. Perhaps that was because one of my friends who went there often was as tough as any bouncer. He was from Cleburne. Most knew him as “Bulldog”. It was a fun adventure as a kid in the 60s……..ahhhh but that was then…………. no more for me.
I worked at the Ft Worth Cellar from 65-67.It was upstairs. I was a waitress and dancing girl. I am the owner of the Group-Texas Cellars.
I was 17 in 1965 when I first started coming to the Cellar. I was in high school in Dallas but I had my own car and drove to the Cellar constantly. It was my second home. I remember how friendly Pat Kirkwood was to me and I actually went to his house for coffee at 6:00 am after sitting in the Cellar all night. I told my parents I was spending the night with a friend. And I got away with it
Everyone was friendly and I got to know most of the waitresses. I came to listen to some of the best music ever. These young musicians played their hearts out. The Cellar kept me sane during my teen years.
Shelley McBride here.
I played at the Dallas Cellar when I was 18 in
1968. I remember going first to the Ft Worth Cellar driving 125 miles from Durant Oklahoma to see Bugs Henderson as well as the Cellar Dwellers. Bugs was a big inspiration to my guitar work and the Dwellers were spot on with the Beatles tunes. In Dallas, we played across from KLIF downtown.
I was 17-18ish but finally reached my goal of being good enough to play there with a respectable Allmans Brothers copy band. Mike Ryner was the drummer, Anthony Brogden was a guitarist, and I played guitar and was the lead vocalist. I remember Stevie Ray stopping by and sitting in as well as Nitzinger and Freddie King. A guitarist named Anthony Polusa who later played with the Carpenters had a band called the Abstracts. He was awesome. Big John O’Daniels would stop in and sing his ass off. It was the place that defined the men from the boys as musicians.I still play but the caliber of musicians back then was serious. The dancing girls were always unique from any other club. The manager there was Johnny Carrol and a small biker named Elf. Those moments are indelible and the music played there was powerful. Our band was Street Noise. Unfortunately “everyone I thought was cool is six feet underground”…Johnny Winter! Thanks for keeping this iconic place alive. Shelley McBride,Denison, Texas.
Thanks for the great anecdotes and memories from the cellar dwellers. Those were strange times. Not like today when everyone wants tries to project weirdness. In those days you had to have guts to walk on the wild side.