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Deep Ellum’s Video Bar Lives For a Night at the Kessler Theater

The Kessler Theater will transform into the Video Bar and On the Air, two seminal Dallas clubs centered around music videos, for one night only.
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Bart Weiss, who ran the Video Bar in Deep Ellum before starting Dallas VideoFest. Courtesy of Dallas VideoFest

The Video Bar was a venue in Deep Ellum that brought music—and, more specifically, music videos—to the city in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. It was a spiritual successor to On the Air, a club with the same premise on Lower Greenville. 

On Friday, June 16, the Kessler Theater is bringing the Video Bar back to life for one night. They will be playing “era-specific music videos all night,” which will include the full-length version of Nine Inch Nails performing at The Video Bar in 1990.

And the music videos aren’t the only thing returning to Dallas: members of the team who worked at the Video Bar will also be in attendance.

Bart Weiss, who will be hosting the reunion with Video Bar regular Helen Stark, was involved with both On the Air and The Video Bar. His job was to program the videos they would play each night. While it seems like a dream job for the man who would eventually co-found Dallas VideoFest, he wasn’t initially sold on the medium.

“During that era, I was a film guy,” says Weiss. “I taught filmmaking. And to me the video stuff looked really… I don’t know, it just didn’t look that great.” 

However, Weiss was instrumental in getting On the Air off the ground. He mentioned an idea for a bar in Dallas that showed music videos while he was out one night. It didn’t take long before he was contacted by someone who had purchased a space in Lower Greenville. The buyer said he was open to making the property either a gym, or working with Weiss to create his music video bar. Weiss decided to take the opportunity.

“To understand On the Air, you [have] to understand why music videos were important at that time. And they were culturally significant because…people watched MTV and saw music they couldn’t see. But then we showed things that MTV wasn’t playing,” says Weiss.

Sometimes On the Air showed music videos from bands that were not in MTV’s lineup. Other times, though, Weiss screened alternate versions of videos that were in circulation—ones that wouldn’t have been appropriate for a television audience.

“So, like, there is a Duran Duran video for “Girls on Film,” [and] the club version is much more interesting than the one they could show on MTV,” says Weiss, laughing. He also recalls a version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” that was “definitely not airable,” but a perfect fit for On the Air. (“Girls on Film” was actually created for clubs like the Video Bar, where there was no limit to the content they could show.)

While the music was integral to On the Air, the videos had another important role: they brought audiences into the world of the artists. “People used to…care about what they looked like in a different kind of way,” remembers Weiss. “Like, my hair was asymmetrical and I never wore jeans… But the thing is, the people in the music videos dressed well, so when you were in the club, sitting there or dancing to what was on the screen, it’s like [you were]…visually part of that world.”

On the Air ultimately closed down due to mismanagement. “He didn’t pay the rent. And he didn’t tell anybody that he didn’t pay the rent,” Weiss says of the owner. “So, literally, April Fool’s Day, we go there, and there’s a lock on the door, and the club is closed.”

The staff got together and ultimately decided to start The Video Bar in Deep Ellum. The core idea remained the same, to start a club showcasing the intersection of music and video. Weiss spent several years working as the artistic director for the bar before moving on. 

“After I left, they got much more involved with live music,” says Weiss. “And my version was, it’s all about the video. But that’s fine. It worked well. And there was a very famous Nine Inch Nails show that was…a really big cultural moment.”

Even as the venue began focusing more on live shows, Weiss says other VJs came in and continued the work the club was built on. The Video Bar was making other changes, however. One was the introduction of “Sadistic Sundays,” which brought videos with heavier S&M themes into rotation.

“We had sexual material that we showed, but it wasn’t the highlight, [it was just] a little spicier…to round out other things. But that was…the aesthetic direction as [The Video Bar] moved on,” says Weiss. The venue eventually closed.

After leaving the Video Bar, Weiss continued working as an educator and writing about video. On the Air and The Video Bar were an important part of his life, but they were behind him—until recently.

“Jeff Liles, who runs the Kessler…thought it would be a really good idea to bring this all back,” says Weiss. 

Liles reached out to Ron Stanley, who worked as a VJ at The Video Bar and took on more responsibilities after Weiss left. They also involved Helen Stark, who was a regular at the venue and runs a Facebook page dedicated to On the Air and The Video Bar.

Stanley will VJ the “Video Bar Reunion,” an opportunity for former attendees to reminisce, while also bringing the music videos of the period to newer generations.

As much as the event will be about recreating the experience of The Video Bar, it’s also a throwback to a different era of Dallas, when someone could casually toss off an idea for a bar that showed music videos, have someone else take the idea seriously, and turn it into a staple of Dallas culture for the better part of a decade.

“It was a moment when anything could happen,” says Weiss. “And there were people and artists, musicians, in all kinds of areas, [and] we all kind of knew each other, and we worked on stuff together, and…forged this interesting time. It was a wonderful time to be here.”

Author

Austin Zook

Austin Zook

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