Saturday, June 20, 2009

Visiting the Kessler Theater

I paid a visit to my old neighborhood yesterday evening. My sweetie 'n' I were over in north Oak Cliff at Jeff Liles' invitation to attend a "sneak peek" at the Kessler Theater at the intersection of West Davis and North Clinton. The theater's about to be renovated with an eye to opening as a 300-capacity music venue (with in-house piano and dance studios) in December this year -- that's right, in six months -- and Jeff's going to be booking the music. It could be another Caravan of Dreams, set in the middle of a 'hood that's been quietly evolving into the Brooklyn of Dallas over the past 15 years or so. Another big plus for those of us from the 817: it's easy to get to -- I-30 to Hampton to Davis and boom, you're there.

It was only after we parked the car that it snapped in my head that the Kessler's location is about three blocks from the second place I lived after I moved to Texas in '78: a duplex in the 400 block of N. Winnetka, which I shared with my drummer from college and a coupla cats from Schenectady for couple of months, from July until I decamped for the Gulf with two other friends in September. Sure enough, the house was still there, looking essentially as it had back then, down to the two dudes swilling beer on the porch. The only immediately discernable difference was that the house up the street with the geese no longer had geese.

Norma's Cafe was still across Davis, and up the street, Chango Botanica. Across from Norma's in one direction was the Jack In the Box that I saw besieged by little boys from the neighborhood one night after I finished closing Peaches at Cole and Fitzhugh. In the other direction is the apartment building where Liles stays. Dennis Gonzalez lives a few blocks away, too. A nice li'l 'hood, much more my speed than most of Big D. It occurred to me that I felt a lot less connected to places when I was young than I do now. Back then, I was so into whatever I was doing at the time that I was kind of oblivious to my surroundings. But in the fullness of time, encountering familiar places from days gone by evokes a flood of memories.

At Liles' recommendation, we stopped for food at Cesar's Tacos -- big, tasty burritos with green sauce and sour cream on the side, and Mexican Cokes. (We figured it'd be bad form to hit the post-"sneak peek" happy hour _ravenous_.) The chow was righteous and reasonably priced (three bucks for a burrito or torta), and the j'int is open 24 hours. A perfect storm. Next time we're in the area, we wanna check out the pupuseria (a pupusa, we discovered, is a Salvadoran flatbread sammitch) further up Davis.

We joined the crowd of community 'n' media folks at the theater, which included ex-Nervebreaker Barry Kooda (whose trio is opening for the li'l Stoogeband and Austin's Strange Attractors at Lola's 6th on July 16th), snapping photos and wearing a hardhat; Deep Ellum survivor/photog/Austinite Machelle Dunlop; Dallas Observer scribe Jesse Hughey; and ex-Nervebreakers/Vibrolux/Decadent Dub Team guitarist Paul Quigg, who'll be production manager for the new venue.

The Kessler's a great space, built in 1941 and owned by cowboy star Gene Autry from the late 40's to the early '50s. It survived destruction by a tornado in 1957 and a fire in the '70s. Following incarnations as a church and a sweatshop, the building sat disused for 31 years, until investor Edwin Cabaniss bought the building early this year. The architectural plans looks promising. One hopes that the money guy will be okay with investing what it takes to get the room sounding right, and have the patience to allow time for this venture to get on its feet once the doors are open. In his brief remarks, Cabaniss said all the right things about respecting the neighborhood's diversity and character. Then he brought up Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert. Seeing Leppert and Liles posing side by side with shovels, my sweetie remarked, "It's like the mayor of Dallas standing next to the mayor of Deep Ellum." When I reported her quip to Liles later, he corrected me: "Not Deep Ellum any more," he said. "Oak Cliff!"

After that, singer-songwriter Emily Elbert -- who'll be old enough to buy a beer in December and looks _almost_ old enough to be attending Boston's Berklee College of Music (where she holds a full-tuition scholarship) -- sang a couple of songs. She's got great pipes and guitar/compositional chops in the same jazzy-soulful vein as older Dallasites Edie Brickell and Norah Jones. Her mom gave me a CD that I'll review when I have time to listen/absorb/cogitate.

A real nice night out on the east side of the county line. I could even see getting in the habit. Thanks to Liles for the coat-pull and the post-event hospitality.


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