The Curtain Club's Mark Whitford: "You Watch a Good Concert. You Feel a Great One."
If you go to the Curtain Club or Liquid Lounge and ask for Mark, chances are you're not going to be pointed in this guy's direction. He's not only known as "Whit" to those on the corner of Main and Crowdus, but to everyone chummy with him since about eighth grade.
Mark Whitford is the GM at the Curtain Club and Liquid Lounge, and can be seen behind the bar, in the books, and hard at work on the booking. National acts may not be the most common sight on their bills, but over the course of 15 years of life in Deep Ellum, they've had Henry Rollins, Dick Dale, Soul Asylum, Corrosion of Conformity and My Chemical Romance grace the stage. More importantly, they've played host to a staggering number of local rock acts over the years, many of which are preserved on the walls.
Congratulations on the longevity of Curtain Club and Liquid Lounge. What do you suppose the method to the madness is?
A group of guys that worked at Trees and a group from Rick's Place in Denton teamed with other partners to form the Curtain Club, so there was a lot of experience involved from the beginning. The focus was, and still is, on showcasing local talent. A lot of time, thought and effort were put into the venue and its operations and we've been fortunate enough to have top-notch sound engineers throughout our tenure here.
There's a lot of focus on sound, in both clubs. Sounds expensive.
Great sound is key. Beyond that, it's just about trying to make the best decisions that you can with what you've got. I think most people outside of this business would be shocked at how much overhead is involved.
You have seen an awful lot of neighbors come and go. Care to share some memories of great neighbors past?
It's what makes the neighborhood special. I'm most impressed by the grassroots group of residents and fans of the neighborhood that have put so much time and effort into helping Deep Ellum through these last several years. Most didn't really have anything to gain from it other than nurturing a neighborhood that they carried about. You don't see that kind of selflessness often.
Speaking of neighbors, when we heard The Bone was re-opening as a place called Whit's End, folks immediately thought of you.
We're always happy to see a new place open. I'm sad that The Bone and LaGrange weren't able to continue though. We need as many places open as possible for the area to thrive. When the neighborhood was at its strongest, there were a lot of entertainment options and the streets were filled with people from ALL walks of life. It was a giant melting pot. That was a unique feature of Deep Ellum that no other part of Dallas had.
How did you end up being the centrifuge of these two clubs? Tell us a little about what led up to what you do now.
Well, I'm definitely not a centrifuge of anything; Doug is the managing partner and I assist him with the day-to-day operations. As the bartender as well, I'm just in a more visible position. I first got involved in live music while at The University of North Texas. I bartended at Rick's Place throughout college and loved that job. I graduated and worked at a few "real" jobs for a while. Then one day, Ed, a co-owner of Rick's Place, asked if I'd be interested in working at a new venue that he, Doug and the other partners were starting. The venue opened on New Year's Eve of 1997. Now, here we are 15 years later. Time flies.
Did something significant happened when you were a kid that ignited music in your blood?
When I was a senior in high school, The Edge radio station was just starting out and George Gimarc spun a lot of local music. Back then you could hear local stuff mixed in with more nationally known artists played throughout the day, not lumped into an obscure time slot. That's where I first got turned on to all these great local bands that were right in my backyard. I still remember driving to work and hearing Course of Empire's "Ptah" for the first time. I was blown away then and I still listen to those bands today.
Many folks seem to think Curtain is "just a metal club". Is that an accurate pigeonhole?
The Curtain Club is not a "metal" club. We are aware that people have that perception of us though. There's a lot of different genres represented on our calendars each month so we're not sure how else to dispel the myth. There was definitely a time when we hosted a lot of shows in that genre. Drowning Pool was starting to blow up and there were a lot of folks out supporting that style of music. There still are a lot of metal fans supporting that scene, but we've always hosted different styles of music. As a venue, we think you have to. Actually, a lot of our bigger drawing acts at the moment are of a much lighter fare. Music fans ultimately determine what's being played in the venues. If Kentucky bluegrass speed metal became the hottest thing in the land tomorrow, clubs would play it. Ticket buyers control how often a style gets featured.
Both clubs are in such great spots, location-wise. Are there aspirations about what could be done to take them to the next level?
We're talking with someone now about ways to improve our online presence. Our new website has recently gone live and more features will be added later. There are some things we're discussing in the way of lighting. As with any small business, it's just a matter of doing things as you can afford them.
Craziest things you've seen happen inside? Both with performers and patrons?
The craziest stories probably aren't appropriate for this format, but I've got lots of great memories though. Regardless of the style, music can be powerful. I love those moments in show when the band on stage has everyone mesmerized and there'll be this crescendo in a song and afterwards you realize that you've been slightly holding your breath because you're so caught up in it. I love that. You watch a good concert. You feel a great one.
What do you feel needs to be done to strengthen not only the Deep Ellum community, but our local music community in general?
I do wish there was more support amongst some of the bands. The music scene shouldn't be viewed as a competition. When a local band starts to garner attention, it only brings more attention to the scene as a whole. We should all be rooting on all the bands. One band's success is not a missed opportunity for another band. As venues, we need to find new ways to reach more music fans and encourage them to take a chance on some unknowns. Traditional forms of advertising aren't effective at this level. I'd also like to see the Deep Friday shows return at some point. We've been experimenting with some occasional free shows, but they aren't economically viable to run on a continuous basis. More local music on our radio stations would be helpful too. There's a lot of great talent in the area that people are missing out on. To Dallas music lovers, go catch a show. It doesn't have to be The Curtain Club. Go to whatever venue you prefer. There's a lot of talent here. Not every great musician lives in Austin.