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“These were clean-cut Baptists indulging their wild side,” Jaci said about the Cellar’s regulars.

At a time when the city didn’t have proper strip clubs, the Cellar was a place where male customers could watch waitresses working the tables in their bikinis, knowing that they’d get better tips that way. Occasionally young women from off the street would strip too, under the influence of alcohol or just a need for attention. (Being pretty was sometimes connection enough to get a drink.)

Between the women and the music, the Cellar flourished.
Between the women and the music, the Cellar flourished.

Crossing the line with the women, though, meant incurring the wrath of the club’s famously tough bouncers, who occasionally instigated violence themselves and hospitalized unruly customers on a fairly regular basis. While police were kept at bay with favors and free drinks, the club also had a system of lights above the stage to signal when the cops were coming and when all was clear.

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And then there was the music. The Cellar started out as a beatnik bar, and customers originally listened to jazz and folk music along with spoken-word performances. After a few years, the club shifted to blues music and then, in the late 60s, to acid rock.

“After the Beatles hit, it became full bands and not just some dude in a beret with a guitar,” said local music scholar Mark Nobles, who worked as a producer on the Fort Worth music documentary Teen-a-Go-Go and is now lending assistance from afar on You Must Be Weird. “There was more of a melting pot here than there was in Dallas. The white kids could go into the black bars in Fort Worth and hear music there. There was also a country-music influence on Fort Worth blues that you didn’t get in Dallas.”

Yet African-American patrons were kept out of the Cellar, often being referred to a sign advertising a $999 cover charge that white customers were free to ignore.

“A black man ran the kitchen, and black musicians played there,” said McCrary. The couple did not interview African-Americans for their film, despite attempts to find the club’s employees. They hope someone will come forward.

McCrary described the segregation policy as a response to the half-naked women inside and the prevailing racism of the day. “Hell would have broken loose if a black man touched a white woman. Pat Kirkwood didn’t want the club shut down,” he said. Still, the policy was bad enough that Joe Ely vowed never to play the Cellar after his African-American friends were turned away.

The club even landed in the Warren Commission Report about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The night before the president’s fatal trip to Dallas, Secret Service agents had asked then-local reporter Bob Schieffer where to go for a drink, and Schieffer took them to the Cellar.

Musicians would play for an hour and then take an hour off to hear others. The scene quickly turned competitive, with axmen vying to outplay each other and occasionally stealing each other’s licks outright. In this environment, breakneck guitarists like John Nitzinger and the late Bugs Henderson and more technical guitarists like Jimmie Vaughan learned from one another.

The night-shift hours encouraged musicians to take amphetamines to stay awake. Those who couldn’t could grab a few hours’ sleep on cushions that were laid out on the club’s floor. Nitzinger was one of the musicians who spent time effectively living at the Cellar, playing at night and shifting for himself during the daylight hours.

“The hours gave them lots of time to play,” said Nobles. “It was like a school. Even now, people from the Cellar call themselves graduates.”

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11 COMMENTS

  1. 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

  2. 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.
    Jack Remington

    • 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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