The Kessler Is Bringing Back the Video Bar for a Night | Dallas Observer

Music History

Dallas' Video Bar, Which Played Music Videos MTV Wouldn't Dare To Air, Will Return For a Night

A mannequin with a TV for a head greeted guests at On The Air in Lower Greenville. The video music club moved to Deep Ellum and was renamed The Video Bar.
A mannequin with a TV for a head greeted guests at On The Air in Lower Greenville. The video music club moved to Deep Ellum and was renamed The Video Bar. Dallas Observer/D. Vaughn
Music videos are almost a lost art form — even in this hyper-digital age when any memory you have of a TV show, a movie or even a commercial can be found somewhere on the internet.

Traditional music videos still exist, but sometimes it feels like they're stuck in an upright vacuum being sucked away by the ravages of time as people's attention turns to snippets of concerts or tiny desk performances posted on social media.

Hell, remember MTV? The channel that once used music videos to build a media empire didn't just stop playing music videos but stopped covering music entirely after a recent round of layoffs shuttered the long-running MTV News division.

One place in Dallas also once celebrated the art of the music video. It took chances on bands that mainstream channels and stations wouldn't touch or ever knew about. On The Air in Lower Greenville, later known as The Video Bar when it moved to Deep Ellum, incorporated visual effects and images with recorded and, later, live music that would inspire those lucky enough to get in and even launch music careers with names like Nine Inch Nails.

"In that time, music videos were culturally relevant," says Bart Weiss, one of On The Air's co-founders who went on to create the Dallas VideoFest and the filmmaking series Frame of Mind on KERA TV. "People cared about them and how they were made. There's this music video from a band in Houston or Austin called El BJ who made a video called Gomer Pyle Is God. It's one of those things that never played on MTV but the people who were there will definitely remember that."

The Kessler Theater, at 1230 W. Davis St. in Oak Cliff, will be celebrating this 1980s music institution in Dallas by turning the venue into a living homage to On The Air and The Video Bar on Friday. The theater will be transformed for one night only into the '80s music video bar complete with televisions and projection screens showing experimental and unique music videos that play along to the music for the folks on the dance floor. Live veejays will control everything you see and hear as they mix the alternative sounds of '80s music with multimedia in real time.

"It was the one place where you could really utilize video in your show," says Kessler artistic director Jeff Liles, who frequented On the Air and The Video Bar in the '80s. "You could tell when they made their videos that they were really abstract and they were really kind of stream of consciousness. It was a lot of that kind of random imagery that was distorted or sped up or sped down, that kind of stuff, and they were just looping it to their music."

On The Air started in Lower Greenville in 1983 across from the Arcadia Theatre, one of the city's most popular places for concerts that attracted names like The Cure, Miles Davis and The Ramones; it burned down in 2006. Around two years after its opening, Weiss says On The Air had to move when the owner of the space forgot to pay the rent. The founders located a place in Deep Ellum at 2812 Elm St. and renamed it The Video Bar. It later moved near the corner of Elm and Good Latimer.

"The guy who was the owner [of the Lower Greenville space] would take money out of the cash register and pay his coke dealer and didn't pay the rent," Weiss says. "Also he didn't tell anybody he didn't pay the rent. This was the '80s. It's what people did back then."

The popular music spot, Liles says, provided a muse for people who loved music but didn't know how to direct their lives towards joining the industry.

"I loved The Video Bar when I was a young person and it was a super inspiration to a lot of kids my age who didn't know what they were going to do with their life yet," Liles says. "They would see videos at The Video Bar and stuff and get interested in being a filmmaker or an editor or wardrobe or hairstyling or whatever. Something about music videos on the air inspired people to want to be creative."

Weiss says On The Air was inspired by the music video bars that started to pop up in New York. The owner of an empty space on Lower Greenville offered Weiss the chance to re-create the idea for the Dallas music crowd. Weiss accepted the challenge and veejayed using whatever videotapes he could find.

"I had no idea what the club business was like," Weiss says. "I got a projector and a couple of Super VHS and Betamax hi-fi players, which were not very hi-fi, and this switcher. Back in those days, I'd switch between the two decks and the screen would roll because it's so primitive."

Weiss says thanks to connections he had with record labels, he could find rare stuff to play in his club. 
"I would go out and visit these people every other week and say, 'I heard you've got the new Talking Heads video' and they said, 'OK, it's in the closet. Go get it,'" Weiss says. "Since I had relationships with these record companies, I had new material all the time. I had way more new stuff than any other place did, and if any song didn't have a video, we'd go out and shoot stuff."

Mark Griffin, aka rapper MC 900 Ft. Jesus, says he never had a cable hookup in the '80s so he would hang out at On The Air and The Video Bar to see the latest and the more interesting music videos.

"During the whole history of MTV, I never had access to it," Griffin says. "I would have to buy compilations of stuff like the Beavis & Butt-head show. To be able to go into a bar and see the videos up there when people were doing really creative things with them back then — and some stupid ones too — but it was nice to be able to go hang out some place where the projection was really nice. It was a shoestring set-up but it looked really nice on that screen."

On The Air built a steady following that created lines out the door, especially before and after shows at The Arcadia.

"A lot of the time, the artists who played at The Arcadia would come over to On The Air afterwards and hang out all night, like The Cure," Liles says. "After they played at The Arcadia, they went to On The Air."

Griffin remembers being inspired by the comedy music of Will Powers, a fictional self-help guru created by photographer Lynn Goldsmith, who used lots of computer animations in her work. That caught his eye and pulled him into the music.

"[Powers] had this video called Adventures in Success, and it had this little skit that was interspersed with this early computer-animated head," Griffin says. "This polygonal computer art was rotating around mouthing the words to this song. It was just so cool and the tune had this repetitive riff. It was pretty tongue-in-cheek, but it came across with a pretty deadpan delivery about this self-help mumbo jumbo and how you're destined for success." 
click to enlarge
On The Air co-founder and veejay Bart Weiss ran the tape decks that powered The Video Bar on Lower Greenville Avenue.
Dallas Observer/D. Vaughn
Weiss says he left during the club's second incarnation; it later moved down to the street, where the venue took on more of a S&M vibe. Liles says he remembers The Video Bar hosted something called "sadistic Sundays."

This series took place "at the very end of its run," says the Video Bar's longtime VJ, Ron "DJ Freeze" Stanley, one of the organizers of The Video Bar pop-up at the Kessler, who will be DJing the event.

The Video Bar helped the Dallas music scene embrace the emerging trends of visuals in live music that are now commonplace even among the big venues and have become the dominant focal point if you can't afford front-row seats.

"It was the one place from a performance standpoint where you could really utilize video in your show," Liles says. "This way way before bands had video screens on the stage. The whole building felt like an immersive experience and you could count on them to put up really good footage to back you up while you're playing." 
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.

Latest Stories