By: Charles Bickley

Type: General Entry

Published: December 15, 2006

Updated: October 14, 2020

The Cellar was one of the most unusual clubs in Texas. It was owned by Pat Kirkwood and managed by Jim Hill. Four cities had a Cellar—Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, and San Antonio. The club appeared on the Texas music scene beginning about 1958, first in Fort Worth and then in Houston. These two cities were the most successful locations; the San Antonio Cellar lasted only a few weeks in late 1962, and the Dallas location was never as busy as the first two.

The original Cellar in Fort Worth opened on Houston Street about 1958 and was subsequently moved several times in the early 1960s. House bands rotated periodically from one Cellar to another. Rockabilly musician Johnny Carroll served as music director for the original Cellar and each subsequent Cellar thereafter and had complete control over the entertainment operations of the club.

All the clubs had the same format. Each night, after an evening performance by an individual from 7 P.M. to 8 P.M., two paid bands played alternate one-hour sets from 8 P.M. until 5 A.M. This was before "liquor by the drink" was passed in Texas, so no alcohol was served, just setups. The cover charge was one dollar. For that small price a customer could hear two bands and watch the pretty waitresses (they wore bikinis) serve Cokes all night long.

Another unique feature was that there was no dance floor. The space in front of the stage was covered with old couch cushions where the clientele could lie down and listen to the music. The rest of the club was filled with tables, and sofas lined the walls. The lack of dancing encouraged the customers to listen, and the music was great. Bands played cutting-edge rock, blues, R&B, country rock, and the Beatles, mixed with their own originals. There was also a two-foot-high and two-foot-wide partition separating the band from the sofa-cushion area. This was often used as a "runway" by female dancers, who sometimes stripped spontaneously. Stripping was not legal in the Cellar, but it wasn't the only shady thing going on. The Cellar also later had the dubious distinction of being frequented by rival club owner Jack Ruby, who killed Lee Harvey Oswald. Secret Service agents patronized the club on the night before the Kennedy assassination.

The Cellar had an undertone of violence. Five or six bouncers were usually on hand to throw out anyone who passed out on the cushions (a side door that opened onto the street was the portal used, and the bouncers would really rough people up badly), to keep anyone not welcome in the club from getting in, to break up fights (of which there were many, some instigated by the bouncers), and to protect the waitresses and musicians. Onstage above the musicians, out of sight of the audience, were three bulbs in a row—one white, one blue, and one red. The white light meant that all was okay; the blue meant that the police were in the club, so performers had to watch their language and behavior; and the red meant to start playing a song immediately and continue playing until the light went out (the music was meant to distract the audience from a fight). Since all the Cellars were in rough parts of town, some of the bouncers' actions were justified, though fighting was a poor fit with the hippie attitudes in the music scene at the time.

Nevertheless, the main focus of the Cellar was music. Music director Johnny Carroll regularly wowed audiences with his electrifying performances. Other regulars and semi-regulars included Arvel Stricklin, Jack Estes, Adrian Watts, Cannibal Jones, G. Tiger, Guy Parnell, and the Knightbeats. Musicians Doug Sahm, John Nitzinger, Joe Ely, Johnny Nash, and others played the Cellar. Comedian George Carlin also performed there. Dusty Hill and Frank Beard of ZZ Top, and Rocky Hill had a band called the American Blues, and they had blue hair. Other groups—the Cellar Dwellers, the Neurotic Sheep, the Geeks—were made up of great session players from around town who could play any type of music. The Cellar Dwellers's repertoire, for example, also included Beatles covers.

The various locations of the Cellar closed by the mid-1970s, mainly because of the legalization of liquor by the drink and the rise of clubs with light shows and long jams catering more to young music fans. The Cellar was a strange mix of old-style club management and the innovative music of the 1960s and 1970s. It was a place to hear hours of music for just a dollar with no boundaries on style or genre, and it was a great training ground for young musicians tough enough to survive all the strange things going on around them. Cellar music director Johnny Carroll died in 1995, and owner Pat Kirkwood died in 2000. The CD The Cellar Tapes Volume One (2000) features live recordings from the club. Throughout the years, a Cellar reunion has been held, including a bash in Fort Worth in 2011. You Must Be Weird or You Wouldn’t Be Here, a documentary film by Giles McCrary, was released in 2013.

“Cellar Dwellers,” Fort Worth Weekly (http://www.fwweekly.com/2013/05/08/cellar-dwellers/), accessed October 17, 2015. The Cellar Home Pages (http://www.arvel.com/cellarhome.html), accessed October 17, 2015. Joe Nick Patoski, "The King of Clubs," Texas Monthly 28.4 (April, 2000). 

  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth
  • North Texas
  • Central Texas
  • San Antonio
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • Houston
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Charles Bickley, “Cellar,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/cellar.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 15, 2006
October 14, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: