Echoes and Reverberations: At the Theatre Gallery, Capturing Lightning in a Beer Cup

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Outside the Theatre Gallery in Deep Ellum a quarter-century ago.
It was the summer of 1984 and the city of Dallas was in the midst of a serious makeover. The Republican National Convention was coming to town and Big D was trying to put a conservative foot forward as the media spotlight fixated on our JFK Bermuda Triangle.

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It all comes back around on December 5.
Our local music scene at the time consisted of a half dozen neon rock and roll bars and a handful of tiny punk rock dives: out-of-the-way places like like Studio D, Metamorphosis Concert Hall and Nairobi Room. Classic rock booking agents ignored the bands that played all original material. It was understood that you were expected to cover all of the top radio songs if you ever wanted to land a gig at one of the "wet t-shirt" nightclubs.

In August of that year, a 26-year-old interior design school dropout named Russell Hobbs drove his 25-year-old Mercedes convertible down Commerce Street looking for an empty warehouse space to live in. The irony of this was evident on many levels. Most of the buildings in this warehouse district just east of downtown were dilapidated and empty -- the name "Commerce" (like Riverfront Boulevard today) was false advertising. And Hobbs wasn't your typical Mercedes owner. He was drifting through a veritable ghost town; Deep Ellum had lost touch with its identity. Once a popular entertainment district during the prohibition era, the neighborhood had fallen into an ongoing holding pattern of relative anonymity.

Sure, there were remnant businesses like the old icehouse (where key scenes in "Bottle Rocket" were filmed); Adair's Saloon, Vern's restaurant and Sons of Hermann Hall; a few art galleries here and there; and a place that sold wholesale butcher supplies. For the most part, Deep Ellum seemed to exist under the cultural radar.

In fact, most of downtown Dallas was totally dark after the white-collar crowd fled back to the 'burbs every night.

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Hobbs settled on an empty 14,000 square foot warehouse at 2808 Commerce. The landlord, (the late Don Blanton) handed over a set of keys and wished him luck. The next day Russ began hauling in leftover building materials from recent contracting jobs, and he hired a buddy nicknamed "Billy Manana" to hook up the plumbing. The shower was essentially a garden hose hanging from a support beam in the ceiling. There was no hot water heater in the building at the time.

Without blueprints or any real architectural design experience to speak of, Hobbs began to build what looked like an indoor tree house. Everything was constructed out of raw plywood, concrete or drywall. He salvaged an old boat from the back of a failed Mexican seafood restaurant; he then split the hull lengthwise down the middle, and turned the boat into a beer dispensary station. Directly above "El Barco" was the dark loft space where Hobbs slept naked on a dirty futon every night. He didn't need sheets or blankets because it was hot as fuck inside that building.

Next, he snagged the makeshift stage that the Dead Kennedys had used during the protest outside the GOP convention and dragged it into the back of the building. Intuition, luck, and reckless abandon were colliding to make something out of nothing at 2808 Commerce Street.

He named the place Theatre Gallery.



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