Part 3 of 'Cellar Dweller'
The original Cellar was a raunchy coffee house in a refurbished basement on Houston Street in downtown Fort Worth. But that Cellar was destroyed following a convenient chain of events that ended with a mysterious fire just hours after the police raided the place and padlocked the doors. The place was gutted. I think a big part of the problem the police had with The Cellar, other than it being a symbol of everything that was wrong with this country and quite possibly an open portal to a fiery hell, was the illegal alcohol and, of course, the late night, audience participation strip shows. The Cellar was not licensed for any of that taxable debauchery.
Now, The Cellar’s position on those last two points, as the owner, Pat Kirkwood, explained it, was: “Hey, without the booze, they wouldn't take their clothes off!” The police emphatically frowned on this sort of unauthorized frivolity and would often plant spies to keep tabs on the place. And as soon as the undies started to fly, these self-righteous weasels would slink out and call in the cops. It was just a few semi-attractive women taking their clothes off....No big deal. But those days, in Fort Worth, the mood of morality was not what it is today. Back then there were very few public venues sympathetic to the average male's basic compulsion to ogle a live, “nekid” woman.
Those days, the law said that if you wanted to watch a woman undress in public, you had to go to some strip joint. You paid a shit load of money for drinks and "service charges" just to watch some sturdy woman dressed as a Mardi Gras float, with propellers on her nipples, lumber out from behind a curtain and strut around, shaking her ass. It was that or something equally lame. Anything else would be immoral, illegal and cost way too much money.
As owner and absolute monarch of The Cellar, Pat Kirkwood’s attitude was: “Morality can kiss my ass! If they wanna take their clothes off then what-tha-hell, wake up to the band and start the show!”... What began as a little spontaneous, uninhibited table dancing, first by a couple of The Cellar waitresses then later by usually drunk but always enthusiastic women from the audience, soon turned into “The Cellar’s Tits and Ass Show” and a powerful tourist attraction.
Nothing exceeds like excess and while the cops considered this lewd behavior an illegal nuisance, Pat Kirkwood considered it a gold mine. He devised a simple alarm system to deal with the police and their informants. A 500-watt light bulb was installed in the ceiling over the band, with a long electric cord running across the floor, out the door, up the steps to the street and connecting to a hand held panic button. When the fun began downstairs, one of The Cellar’s courteous, uniformed staff would be upstairs with the alarm switch held discreetly behind his back, keeping an eye out. Any sign of trouble and the panic button was pushed, filling The Cellar with a paint scorching, retina searing bright light, signaling every one to put their clothes on and sit down.
The night of the raid, the show was a bit raunchier than usual. As The Cellar’s singing master of ceremonies, Johnny Carroll, went into his carnival side-show pitch, (“See the amazing two breasted woman!...She walks,..she talks...but not at the same time!"), the band kicked off some ponderous blues cliché then a couple of waitresses got things going with a quick table top shake and peek. Following that, a few semi-reluctant women from the audience were persuaded by Johnny Carroll to get up in front of the band and shake it.
Being the drummer in the band at the time, I was under considerable pressure to accompany the girl’s amateur gyrations with the appropriate "low down" drum fills. I was also under considerable pressure from myself to possibly give a shit. My idea of hell is to play drums behind an endless exhibition of inept exotic dancers, each one clumsier than the last. This wasn’t that bad. These girls were just your occasional weekend party animals wanting to get down and slightly dirty. But that night things got a bit more primal.
It may have been just the right mixture of after hours alcohol, loud music, Johnny Carroll bellowing, “Take it off!” at the top of his lungs into the microphone and of course, my mesmerizing pagan rhythms that led to a sort of domino effect. Women were taking their clothes off all over the place!....On tables, on the floor, in dark corners, vertically and horizontally. Girls were lined up in front of the band like a naked chorus line. I managed to drum up a little enthusiasm for this part. That’s why I remember so vividly, what happened next.
Down on the floor, in front of me, a creepy looking little guy with no shoes and dirty socks, sat watching the flesh parade and vibrating with sweaty anticipation. The Creep didn’t appear to be with anyone in particular. In fact, people were actually moving away from him. This guy was small, thin and geeky looking with a big sweaty bald head and thick black horned rim glasses.... He looked like Gandhi....Or maybe what Gandhi would look like if he were a registered sex offender... When the girls first started lining up in their underwear, The Creep boldly charged across the room to get a front row seat. He bounded over cushions and coffee tables, stepping and tripping over people on the floor to finally plop down in front of the drums for an unobstructed view of the dancers. He kicked off his cheap shoes and after making himself a little nest of cushions, lit up a smoke and got down to some serious sweating and twitching.
One woman in the chorus line seemed to hold The Creep’s attention more than the rest. She was attractive but looked a bit older than the others. She was briefly dressed in a conservative, well-tailored suit and with her square hair do, gave the appearance of a sales-lady in an upscale department store. I found out later her name was Vicky, she was a part time hooker and her volunteering to get up and take off those conservative clothes was just part of her marketing strategy. As Vicky danced around confidently in her underwear and jewelry, The Creep suddenly sprang to his knees and lunged at her, grabbing Vicky around the thighs and planting his face deep into the crotch of her white cotton knickers.
At first, trying to maintain a professional attitude, Vicky reacted to this mild flirtation with playful surprise. But The Creep’s crude embrace quickly turned into a violent struggle. Vicky tried harder and harder to push him away but The Creep wouldn’t let go. She yelled and cursed him, pounding his head and shoulders with her fists but he just held on tighter, burrowing his face into her crotch, attaching himself like some alien tick.
Like a car crash, everything seemed to slow down as I watched this drama unfold. Vicky (still struggling) and The Creep (still attached) toppled over onto coffee tables full of drinks and burning candles, sending everything flying into the air... Locked in mortal combat, Vicky and The Creep rolled off the tables and into the laps of assorted spectators, quickly producing one big screaming ball of bodies, cushions, and cigarette sparks. ...And while several semi-alert bouncers raced to Vicky’s rescue and Johnny Carroll announced that Vicky and The Creep would be back tomorrow night for another show, the 500-watt light bulb in the ceiling ignited, freezing everyone momentarily in a blinding glare. The cops were on the way!
The Cellar shifted into a Code Red Alert....First things first. The staff were able to pry Vicky loose from The Creep’s clutches by steadily stomping on the guy until he finally disengaged and let Vicky go. Problem solved...Next! The other dancers were either instructed to sit down and cover themselves or, depending on the degree of nakedness, rushed to the back of the club and stuffed into the women’s toilet. The big light bulb was turned off as the waitresses sprang into action... Cushions were fluffed, candles relit and coffee served... So, by the time the cops came storming down the steps and into The Cellar (fully prepared to kick ass and take names), all they found was a cozy, candle lit room filled with gentle people all singing along with Johnny Carroll as he crooned the theme song from the Mickey Mouse Club TV show: “M-I-C …..K-E-Y…..M-O-U-S-E.”
This humiliation pissed the cops off big time! ... So much so that they left without saying a word then came back about an hour later with a lot more cops, and a lot more attitude and they shut the place down. The police ordered the big light bulb turned back on so they could get a good look at us....Not a pleasant experience... Not a pretty sight. Under that much unrelenting, unforgiving light, a person could easily be mistaken for a corpse fresh from the morgue. We were all ordered to stand up against the wall. What a pathetic looking bunch of riffraff we were all lined up like that....Like a gang of thugs posing for our big reunion wanted poster.
The guy standing next to me was holding his side under the ribs. He didn’t look to be in pain. He did, however, look worried. There was blood on his shirt and blood on his fingers. “I got stabbed.” He said. “What-a-you think I should do?”
“Stabbed?” I blurted out then caught myself. At this point, the cops were still at the far end of the line checking ID’s.
We still had some time before things got scary. “Who stabbed you?” I mumbled out of the side of my mouth.
“Some kid.” He said. “Out in the alley. We had a problem.” I didn’t ask him any more direct questions. Luckily, the lineup against the wall curved out around the band area, allowing the bleeder and I to be standing right in front of my drums. I suggested he slip behind the lineup and sit down on my bass drum. He eased back and quietly took a seat...Which wasn’t that easy. It’s hard to even touch a set of drums without making some kind of noise. The bleeder managed to pull it off. I closed up ranks in line and the cops never notice him. They moved right on by, checking ID’s while this guy just set there bleeding quietly. After it was all over, he just walked out of the place and never came back.
As far as police raids go, this one seemed pretty uneventful....I assume. I’m no authority. It was my first and so far, my last. A few people with no identification were arrested for vagrancy. A couple of underage girls were taken away in tears and one guy had a joint in his coat pocket. I think the joint is what gave the cops enough probable cause to declare The Cellar an official Den Of Wickedness and therefore to be vacated immediately and the doors sealed shut to halt the spread of what one veteran police officer described as: "A-bunch-a-commie-dope-fiend-homos!” Pat Kirkwood was taken away on some bogus morals charge but his lawyer, who was waiting at the police station when they brought Pat in, had him out in less than an hour. Everyone else had gone home or where ever it is that people go when they’re not at The Cellar.
It was later that same morning, just before dawn, when the mysterious fire started. It burned unnoticed for hours before the fire department arrived but they had to wait for the police to arrive to officially open the padlocked doors. The article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram read: “The Cellar: Pat Kirkwood’s Notorious Night Spot - Consumed By Fire!” It sounded almost biblical. And of course, the police and fire department were all just sick about it....Such a tragedy.... Many of the local bureaucrats, at least those who managed to find a reporter to speak to or a TV camera to maneuver their pocked faces in front of, went on record as being “Just sick about it.”
The original Cellar was nothing now but a charred and smoldering ruin. For the moment, Kirkwood was down but by no means out. This bout with the big boys downtown was still in the early rounds and Pat could take a punch. He was used to being the bad guy. Salvaging what he could, Kirkwood rose from the ashes under Houston Street and moved his whole operation into another vacant basement one block over on Main Street. Within a few months, with a lot of sweat and love and hard work from his loyal crew, Pat Kirkwood was able to transform a dark and dank little basement into another dark and dank little gold mine. The Cellar was reborn and once again open for business! It wasn’t any bigger and it wasn’t any better...It was just open.
Final of three parts
George Rains © 2018
George Rains, has played drums with Willie Nelson, Jimmy Vaughan, Doug Sahm, Boz Scaggs and many others. He's famous for his Texas Shuffle.