Roy Varrow’s Life Behind Bars

It was going just fine until he collided with downtown Dallas.

It was a gamble, but then Roy Var-row is a gambling kind of guy. When he reopened the King’s Club in the Adolphus Hotel last year, the odds were against him.

He was taking on downtown Dallas – a burial ground for entertainment ventures – and he was trying to resurrect a cadaver. Not to mention the usual risks of the shark-infested club racket – along with restaurants and bars, nightclubs top national bankruptcy lists; some 400 fold in Dallas each year. Varrow was playing Russian roulette with one blank.

” I was willing to accept the challenge,” he says. “I knew there were risks, but I wanted to offer something that would bring some life back to downtown.”

By all appearances, Varrow was the man for the job. After three decades in the business, he has little modesty about his skills. “I’ve taken over some clubs that hadn’t made a penny for years and turned them into highly profitable businesses. Making a club work is an art, just like writing. If you don’t have a talent for creativity, you won’t be successful at it.”

Which is not to say that Varrow has had an easy ride. He started in the basement of the restaurant business as a teen-ager, setting tables at the Dorchester Hotel in his home town of London. In the next 15 years, he moved up the ranks to a prominent position in a European catering firm that handled social events at Windsor Castle.

Between parties, Varrow married, had two children, was divorced, and moved to Montego Bay. In Jamaica, he became friends with some influential Americans and developed a taste for sunny weather, both of which prompted his move to California to join the Hilton Corporation.

One of his first assignments was to open an “English-themed” club in the Dallas Hilton. “It was called the Stetson Club, and still is,” he says. “It was decorated with cowboy hats, boots, and western paintings. I’m still not sure why they told me it was an English-themed club. Maybe the bricks came from England.”

The club was an immediate success, so the Hilton honchos asked Varrow to open another one in Chicago. Varrow declined, returning to California to work at the Ambassador Hotel. At the time, Robert Kennedy was living in the hotel while he campaigned for the Presidency, and Varrow was put in charge of catering for the entourage.

“It was a fast crowd. They were always having parties,” Varrow recalls. In addition to filling cheese trays, he took care of their personal affairs – catering to the mistresses and arranging smooth exits for them when the wives arrived. He was rewarded for his dexterity and discretion with an offer to join Kennedy’s staff in the White House. “Instead I spent the next few months as a tour guide to the place where he was assassinated.”

He returned to Dallas as quasi-man-ager of multi-millionaire Bill Rud-man’s health farm-dude ranch-circus outside of Dallas. Varrow’s duties were, to put it mildly, unusual. For instance, there was the time Rudman woke Varrow in the middle of the night, requesting his immediate presence at the pasture gate. It seems Rudman’s cow was in heat, and Roy’s help was needed to push her across to a neighbor’s pasture so that Rudman could save a stud fee.

Varrow’s wife at the time was not amused by farm life or by Rudman, so they moved to Highland Park. Varrow then took a job managing Clint Murchison’s unprofitable Expressway Towers Club, renaming it the Cowboy Club and adding charter flights to games and Superbowl weekend packages for. members. The membership reached 2,000 when Varrow saw the opportunity to buy a downtown restaurant, then called Royal Oaks.

“I was advised against it, but I decided to give it a try. I kept my job at the Cowboy Club in case it didn’t work out.” He changed the name to Varrow’s, and within a month it was so successful that he quit the Cowboy Club. “In six months, I had tripled the money of my three investors. I sold the restaurant to a Dallas oilman, but I signed an agreement that I wouldn’t own another restaurant in Dallas for five years.”

That led Varrow to a “consulting” position with a McKinney Avenue bar called R.V.’s. The initials stood for Restaurant Ventures, a syndicate of 20 Dallas businessmen who invested $1,500 each to open R.V.’s. It was an unfortunate coincidence for Varrow, because the club’s failure became associated with his name.

“The problem was that each investor thought he was the owner,” says Var-row. “All of them thought they had special privileges with the waitresses, and they all wanted free drinks for themselves and their friends. I left after three months, and the place finally closed nine months later. There were a lot of bitter feelings among the invest-ors, and some of them are still holding grudges because of it.”

In the next few years, Varrow served short terms as manager of The Den in the Stoneleigh Hotel, operator of a Santa Fe hotel, and promoter of Cutty Sark Scotch. “Varrow never stays around long,” says one of his friends. “But he sure has a knack for getting out just before the walls cave in.”

Varrow admits it, without apology. “I know I’ve been criticized for moving around so much. But I’ve never wanted to open a place and stay there for the next 20 years. I need a constant challenge. It’s like being a sculptor. He doesn’t work on one piece all his life – he creates something, then goes to another project. That’s what I’ve done. I’ve taken places that were down, made them successful, and sold out. Like the stock market – you buy low and sell high.”

But then, sometimes the market crashes without warning.

Varrow was optimistic when he leased the King’s Club in April of 1977. The club had been, in its prime, a second home for Dallas wheeler-dealers. “In the Fifties and Sixties, it was like a downtown country club,” says Joe Miller, who worked for Varrow at The Den before opening his own bar. “The bankers, lawyers, oilmen, and businessmen would come in for lunch and leave at four the next morning.” There was live entertainment – as many as three acts nightly – and reservations were often booked months in advance.

When liquor-by-the-drink was passed in 1971, the King’s Club, like many others, began to decline. By the time Varrow leased it, rigor mortis had set in. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Varrow says. “But I thought I could make it work.”

Varrow had reason to be confident. He has known first-hand the downs and ups of the club business, and has no illusions about its inherent hazards.

“People think that running a club is like having one continuous party,” he says. “But the glamour wears thin very quickly. It drains you – emotionally, physically, and mentally.” According to Varrow, a club manager must be wetnurse, janitor, personnel supervisor, diplomat, entertainer, and psychiatrist – a Superman with dishtowel cape and permanent smile.

“To make a club work, you have to make the customers feel important, whether they’re millionaires or clerks,” he says. “You have to be able to size up people quickly so that you can give them the amount of attention they want.

“If a guy comes in with his mistress, you have to give him privacy without decreasing service. If he comes in the next night with his wife, you have to know enough not to say, ’Hey, that was a great-looking woman you were with last night.’ You can spend millions on decor, but if you don’t give them good service, they won’t come back.”

Even then, there are no guarantees. The problems are constant, “There’s always the problem of employees stealing from you, and I could write a book on the excuses I’ve heard for not coming to work. A lot of times they just disappear, and you never hear from them again – unless they have a paycheck coming. Then if you fire a girl, she tells everybody that it was because she wouldn’t go to bed with you.”

Then there are the times when the employees show up, but the customers don’t. “It’s a crazy business. You never know whether to expect two people or 500. Customers are fickle. It used to be that you had six months to make a club work, but now it’s more like six weeks. If you aren’t attracting a good business in that time, then you should sell out or close the doors and count your losses.”

When Varrow reopened the King’s Club, it appeared he was going to beat the odds. He had redecorated the interior, putting couches and gold plaid wall covering in the bar section, black leather booths and padded chairs in the dining area. With the addition of an elaborate luncheon buffet and an afternoon happy hour, the club began to attract new members.

By January, Varrow was prepared to face his biggest challenge – attracting people back to downtown Dallas at night. He booked Ramsey Lewis, David “Fathead” Newman, and Moment’s Notice for three nights of concerts in the Grand Regency Ballroom of the hotel. Despite one of the worst snow-and-ice storms in Dallas history, the concerts sold out.

“I made money,” he says, “and the hotel made money.” Local newspapers and jazz review magazines heralded it as a “new age” in downtown jazz. Then came the unexpected blow.

“I was told by the hotel’s director of operations that the owner felt the concerts were ’not right’ for the Adolphus.” When asked to explain, the operations director told him that the jazz concerts “attracted the black element” and requested that Varrow not use the hotel’s public facilities.

“I couldn’t believe that this was happening in 1978. The audience was generally about a 50-50 racial mix. They weren’t street people, either.” At $10 for admission and mixed drinks from $2.50 up, the concerts could hardly have attracted Bowery bums. “Everybody was extremely well-dressed and well-mannered. There were never any complaints or problems. But what could I do? I figured if the hotel was against me, then I couldn’t do it alone.”

George Balogh, operations director at the Adolphus, tells a different story. “I told him that the hotel was unable to provide the support services that were needed for that type of concert. We needed a change of personnel. Also, the ballroom remodeling hadn’t been completed; the physical surroundings and the acoustics weren’t suitable. We asked him to give us 60 or 90 days to shape up before trying the concerts again.”

Varrow had already booked concerts featuring Herbie Mann and Dave Bru-beck, but he canceled them. “The King’s Club only seats 300, so I couldn’t make enough money to pay for the big names. That’s when I lost my desire to try to make it work.”

Varrow turned the music operations over to local jazz musician Bill Till-man, who booked concerts with less widely known artists, including Eddie Harris, Donny Hathaway, and several local jazz groups. Tillman says the club continued to draw good crowds. “Most of the concerts made money, some broke even, and some lost. But all combined, we came out with a profit.”

Still, the King’s Club quietly closed last April. Tillman won’t talk about it. “I’ve been advised by my lawyer not to say anything about it. There are lawsuits involved.”

Varrow says he gave up the club because he’s convinced there is no hope for the recovery of downtown Dallas. “The big plans for reviving downtown night life are totally unrealistic. Thanks-Giving Square is a joke, and the Fairmont and Hyatt-Regency are islands. People will go there for shows or social events, but nobody’s going to say, ’Let’s take a walk down Main Street after the show.’ Not unless they’re looking for a bargain bedmate or a mugging.

“The King’s Club cured me of the club business,” he says. “I took a beating.” He is, as they say in the business, “between fortunes.” Early this summer Varrow started Dallas International Catering with Richard Mack, formerly chef at the Fairmont and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. He has sold his townhouse and his yellow Jaguar with Varrow license plates, and says it will take him nine months to recoup his losses.

There are some losses he will never recoup. “The club business has cost me three marriages and some nice relationships. It eats you up. At its best – the rare times when everything goes right – it can be fun. The bad times are absolute hell. There’s nothing that could convince me to go back to it.”

Well, almost nothing. “L passed thisabandoned Safeway the other day, andI think it would be perfect for a discofor teen-agers. With very little expense,I could . . .” Ah, yes, the sweet soundof rolling dice.


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