Concerts like these happen every night: Hosted in a large, dark room with an open floor and bar or two for libations. Everybody crowds to the front, near the stage for the best view and a chance to be seen by their favorite artist. People are packed in so close that you can smell what flavor Garnier Fructis the girl in front of you is using, while the stranger behind you accidentally brushes their hand against your rear end.
Artificial fog is pierced by green laser lights. Somebody in the middle of the crowded room lights a joint. They take a drag and blow out the smoke in a highly exaggerated fashion. The temperature of the room rises 20 degrees from the time you arrive until right before everybody, in a sweaty mess, spills onto the street after the last encore.
While this experience may seem universal, it is by no means trivial. Venues that take their patrons for granted or can not execute properly can end up leaving a bad taste in the mouths of their customers, making repeat business dependant on booking the right artists. However, a place that is transparent about their passion for the business and appreciation for the talent involved can leave you begging for an excuse to visit said music sanctuary again. Seven years ago, Dallas lost a venue that, in my opinion, fulfilled its purpose better than any I’ve experienced before or since, always leaving me wanting more. I’m talking about the place that brought hundreds of people at a time to Deep Ellum – at night, no less – during some of the neighborhood’s leaner days and was voted “Best Live Music Venue” by the Dallas Observer every year it was open the full calendar. Today, I’m feeling nostalgic for The Gypsy Tea Room – the landmark concert space that opened in 1998 and rocked its way into the hearts of Dallas music lovers for 9 gloriously loud years.
Excuse me. The Gypsy Tea Room AND Ballroom. You can’t forget the Ballroom – that was the most important part. The venue was separated into two experiences. The Tea Room was the smaller space, used mostly by local bands cutting their teeth in the live music scene. The Ballroom was the larger space for artists on tour and as they used to say on “MTV Cribs” during this time, was “where the magic happens”.
Some legendary names graced the stage in the Ballroom – Willie. Beck. SnooooooooOOp – and their mugs would be plastered on the exterior of the building for weeks ahead of time, announcing the date. Dallas artist Frank Campagna created huge 8×12 foot murals right on the brick wall facing Good-Latimer Expressway that featured either a portrait of the artist or a representation of their essence. I connected with this revolving calendar of musical icons because I felt that it spoke to how seriously the people behind The Gypsy Tea Room took every booking. These weren’t mass printed one-sheet posters stapled to a telephone pole, nor were they a banner ad running down the side of a Dallas news website. These were commissioned original works of art, available to appreciate for a limited time only, that stood as a beacon to passers-by: “Yes, something awesome happens in Deep Ellum! Come back for it!”
The entrance to the Ballroom was on Main Street, but before doors would open for the night, people would be lined up on Main, around the corner of the building onto Good-Latimer face-to-face with the painted murals and then around ANOTHER corner onto Elm Street. I recall gazing into windows of abandoned buildings while inching my way towards the entrance wondering why more businesses couldn’t survive in Dallas’ alternative art scene.
Admittedly, the area was starting to look a little desperate as Deep Ellum was entering another valley in its infamous cyclical history. It was a proverbial ghost town during the day and a breeding ground for peddlers at night with a strong contingent of down-on-their-luck types sprinkled under every other awning. My parents would always remind me to “be safe” in Deep Ellum. Even when I was leaving to hang out in one of Dallas’ other neighborhoods – West Village, Mockingbird Station, etc. – they would always seem to bring up the dangers of Deep Ellum because “you never know around there.” To their credit, walking from one of the parking lots underneath North Central Expressway to the venue, car tires thumping overhead, provided extra excitement to the evening. Would I get accosted for money? How many demo tapes would be forced upon me? If I didn’t make eye contact with the guy selling steaks out of his car, would he still try to call me over?
At my first Gypsy Tea Room concert, I made the mistake of wearing flip-flops. It only took ten minutes into the opening act for beer to be spilled in our tight quarters, splashing directly on to my feet. I had to spend the rest of the night dealing with the sticky, aromatic consequences but the concert experience wasn’t tarnished at all. Every attempt to shift my weight during the show felt like my feet had been glued directly to the floor. So, instead of being able to move around, I bobbed my head to the beat just a little bit harder. Hours later, the car ride home could have brought comparisons to a joyride in an Anheuser-Busch dumpster, but we just rolled down the windows and blasted the same Jimmy Eat World album, singing along to the same songs we had witnessed Jim Adkins & Co. finish performing not an hour before. Nights like these were special, but not rare. The next concert back, I made better decisions in my choice of footwear, but the satisfaction was identical.
And the ticket prices were INSANE, looking back. My recent research has brought me to this nugget: An October 2005 concert featuring The Killers cost only $13. WHAT?!?! HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? Just for reference, their critically acclaimed and commercially dominant album “Hot Fuss” was released in 2004. This would be at the height of their popularity and seeing them live probably cost less than purchasing the actual album at the merchandise table after the concert.
The Gypsy was there for us – giving us epic nights for the cost of cheap thrills – and we were there for it, but sadly, the Tea Room wasn’t invincible. After a lawsuit alleged negligence on the part of the venue stemming from a beating that happened on premises, as well as continuing tax battles with the IRS, the operating group behind the Gypsy Tea Room filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2006 and the live music sanctuary closed its doors the next year. After only nine years of shows, a modern legend was dead, hosting its last gig on March 31, 2007. The Plain White T’s headlined that final concert and I’m sure the sappy track “Hey There Delilah” carried particular resonance when compounded with the gravity of the impending closure.
Today’s Dallas still has top-notch music venues that attempt to fill the void. Both the House of Blues and the Palladium (now South Side) Ballroom opened that same year the Gypsy Tea Room closed and the Granada Theater has been an indie music institution since it converted from movie house to live performances. Christian club The Door has even relocated into the building previously occupied by the Gypsy.
All of the above have inevitably tried to build upon what worked for the Tea Room and avoid the pitfalls that they encountered. But for my money, nobody yet has been able to touch the heart, passion, and execution of vision quite like those responsible for The Gypsy Tea Room and Ballroom. So we continue moving forward hoping someday, somebody will take up the torch. But for now, in my mind, I’m still right there in the middle of the Ballroom, reliving those classic concerts with fondness – sticky beer feet and all.