Saturday, January 29, 2022 Jan 29, 2022
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The Midas touch of Shannon Wynne
By  |

SINCE HE couldn’t get into veterinary school and since his sure-sell bicentennial T-shirts hit the market like wet bottle rockets, Shannon Wynne did the logical: In mid-summer 1980, he packed away filmmaking and biology degrees and opened a bar. A year and a half later, he opened an unmarked door to another. Ten months later, another.

So it was that in just over 28 months, 8.0 Bar, Nostromo and Rocco’s Oyster Bar were born of this 6’3?”, 157-pound, “hectic anorexic,” as Shannon Wynne is known. Each club continues to flourish, remaining definitively chic in Dallas’ bumper-to-bumper fast lane.

Folk tales about this young bar czar began circulating among fashion plates, preppies and artsy types during those first packed nights at 8.0. Shannon Wynne is a creative genius with strong feelings about aesthetics -about loud music and gladio-las. This Halloween he arrived at Nostromo decked in a floor-length, glittered, fuchsia designer toga from Santa Fe; later in the evening, he topped off his outfit with a tablecloth turban. Wynne has been written up with varying degrees of honor by Texas Monthly, Women’s Wear Daily and Esquire, and he jokingly tells friends of his disappointment if the Sunday papers bear no mention of his name.

But this son of Camay Soap girl Joanne Ebling Wynne and Six Flags founder (the late) Angus Wynne Jr. seems genuinely surprised to hear he has acquired a glamorous, if not illustrious, reputation.

That reputation, aside from the usual accounts of celebrity antics – tuxedo-clad swims, angry women at his door after midnight, an occasional impromptu Beatles number with the 8.0 band – is fired for the most part by his incredible flair for details. He replaces his lack of business and managerial knowledge with passionate concern for lighting, color and music. During the first nights that the 8.0 was open, he earned his “hectic anorexic” nickname by rushing around giving orders and worrying about every incidental.

Since the 8.0 was crowded every night within two months after it opened, managers had little time to study Shannon’s tastes. Every evening for the first six months, Shannon adjusted the light switch until one frustrated manager used a grease pencil to mark the position on the lighting dial where his boss set the intensity. The next night, when the lighting was set at that very position, Shannon bounced in and changed it again. He finally explained that “lighting is a function of the event.” The whole presentation – the type and size of the crowd, the mood of the hour, the degree of energy – was to be considered before the lights were set.

And even if the lights are set correctly, the environment isn’t right if the flowers don’t fan from their vases at just the right angles. If the mirrors at Nostromo are not streakless. If waiters and waitresses say “soup” without the adjective “homemade.” Nostromo waiters must never venture onto the dining floor without pepper grinders. Uniforms must be spotless.

The bar/restaurants that result from Shannon’s particularities are smashing, much-copied successes. His most-bitter critics temper their harsh words with phrases such as “you have to hand it to him” and “he’s incredibly talented.” He brought funk to Dallas with 8.0 and funk-topped chic with Nostromo. He used building materials – window screens, unfinished flooring, plush booths and Italian tiles – in innovative ways. He coordinated color schemes the city would never have requested-aquas, lavenders, grays.

He continues to carefully surround his patrons in proper aesthetics and happily remains oblivious to the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts workings of his restaurants. He has no business degree, no idea how to open a cash drawer. 8.0 lacks a bus station because he wasn’t aware a restaurant needed a bus station.

At this stage of the game, Highland Park-born and bred Wynne is not obligated to count pennies in a cash register or to please his critics. He draws a distinct line between giving a customer good service and letting him run the show: “If you put out a good product, I think it’s important to tell people what’s good and bad. For instance, no one in Dallas ever had good food and loud music together before. You can’t make a customer understand why you’re doing things the way you are – so when they ask us to turn the music down, we just say’no.’ I think the idea that the customer is always right is erroneous. We’re going to do it our way; they have a choice as to where they go.”

Shannon is least proud of the element of his reputation brought to light in Texas Monthly several months ago when the magazine dubbed him Dallas’ cocaine king. The piece was a great boon to business, he says, but hurt his credibility and was “impregnated with misconceptions.” “We have strict rules about drugs; if somebody were to pull drugs out and use them, that person would be immediately eliminated from the club. Drugs are used by only 5 to 8 percent of my customers.”

But a waiter at Nostromo says that “at any one time there are people in the restaurant with it [cocaine] on them. There have been times when women complained that they couldn’t get in to use the restroom because so many women were locked in the stalls snorting coke. But it’s not as bad as it used to be – we’ve hired a big ol’ gorilla to enforce the rules.”

“I’ve never pushed or wanted people to use drugs,” Shannon says. “I don’t want people to get the wrong idea; I’ve got a mother…. I’ve got friends. What would they think? I haven’t even smoked pot since 1974, and I hate it; it’s real awful stuff.

“I am in the drug business with alcohol, and sometimes I have conscientious fits of guilt. Alcohol is really the worst drug, but it’s a legal drug and I’m not promoting it, necessarily.”

Shannon says sales for 8.0 Bar Incorporated (the managing company of 8.0, Rocco’s and Nostromo) totaled “$2 to $3 million” last year, so it appears that the former Highland Park High School “God Squad” member hasn’t let his teetotaling conscience get the best of him. Since high school, he has evolved from “feeling” he is a Christian to calling himself a “devout agnostic” – “I think it’s as ridiculous to be an atheist as it is to be a devout Christian.” But when he speaks about himself and his life style, unexpected drops of conservatism seep in.

In fact, Dick Washburn, a friend from Shannon’s schooldays at St. Mark’s and the director of 8.0 Bar Incorporated, says the only secret about Shannon is that “beneath the hype there is an old-fashioned, hard-working guy as honest as the day is long, with charisma running out his ears.”

Jennifer Wynne, who is divorced from Shannon’s brother David, credits Shannon’s old-fashioned side to “a sense of style.” She says the Wynnes are difficult people to get to know. “They are private people not because of secrecy or mystery but because they’re loyal to each other and are sometimes moody.”

With Shannon calling his hottest-selling product “the worst drug” and his close friends calling him old-fashioned, his fast-lane image becomes a little damp. He calls himself “a lightweight” and says he sleeps seven or eight hours a night. He makes it to the office most mornings by 8:30 or 9.

And Mr. Wynne is no womanizer. He drives a fancy car; he’s recognized all over town; he has plenty of money and plenty of charm. But Washburn says Shannon isn’t disingenuous toward women and that “really, only one girl has ever been important to him.”

Shannon doesn’t say much about that woman – who lives in San Antonio – other than that he expects he’ll always be in love with her.

“I always thought I’d be married by the time I was 25,” the 31-year-old says. “But I’m not ready to get married. I’ve got a lot more to learn, and I don’t want to mess marriage up like every one else has.

“This might sound awful, but I’m not against divorce. I think it’s kind of too bad when people stay married simply because they’re afraid of a divorce. If 1 got married, I would do so knowing it might not last forever – but it’s nice and wonderful if it does. I want a child more than I want to get married.”

His values and successes are more easily understood after he talks about his background. He doesn’t talk long about any subject without mentioning his father, Angus Wynne Jr., who died in March 1979, “a light alcoholic,” as his son says.

The eldest of four sons and practically the only non-attorney in the family, Angus Jr. did a stint in the Navy before moving to Dallas and plunging into real estate. He and Joanne Ebling married in 1939. Mrs. Wynne’s wedding picture is still used on soap packages and in advertising by Camay.

Shannon says his mother is “real, real creative” and has “exquisite taste.” Apparently at least once, though, their tastes clashed. Mrs. Wynne says that when her “baby boy” (Shannon is the baby among Temple, 34; David, 36; and Angus, 38) was 15, she decided to redecorate. Shannon marched around the house with a clipboard, listing the points of decor he hoped she could improve.

But he agreed with Mom’s choice for the name of his first place of business. “8.0” came from Mrs. Wynne’s clever turn of the phrase “I done ate there and oh, it was good.”

When Shannon was 6 years old, Disneyland opened. His father thought the park was the keenest thing in the world. Every time a new ride or show was added, the family would visit California. Eventually, Angus decided to open his own amusement park and originally planned to name it “Texas Under Six Flags.” Six Flags Over Georgia and Six Flags Over Mid-America followed. The parks were a dream come true for the Wynne children. Shannon was all the rage in his third-grade class at Armstrong Elementary, answering questions and telling all the secrets of Six Flags’ Skull Island.

“Once the park opened, it was my playground,” he says, “and I took every bit of it for granted. 1 could grab some friends and go to Six Flags Over Georgia or Six Flags over Mid-America. 1 could say, ’Hey, Tommy, do you want to go to Atlanta for the day?’ My friends would jump in the jet, and soon we’d be in a new amusement park. We’d be back in our own beds that night.”

It’s not an outlandish stretch of the imagination to consider Shannon’s clubs somehow akin to amusement parks. A certain amount of show business goes into the success of both places. Angus’ concern for cleanliness added to Shannon’s meticulous nature. An old photograph of Angus sits on Shannon’s desk at the 8.0 offices. The frame is filled, for the most part, by the man’s broad backside as he stoops to pick up an empty wrapper on a Six Flags sidewalk.

In 1964, Angus was asked by President Johnson and Governor Connally to assemble the Texas pavillion at the World’s Fair in New York. He was given only a vote of confidence and 60 days, but he raised the money and produced – according to Shannon-the “coolest show there,” entitled “To Broadway with Love.” But the theater was assigned an unfortunate location, way off in a corner. The musical bombed.

As a result, an involuntary bankruptcy petition alleged Wynne personally insolvent. The Wynne family countered with a gala bankruptcy party. Waiters were dressed in tattered clothes and served guests from soup lines; socialites brought groceries and clothes for the children.

But in 1969, when Shannon was a freshman at Trinity University in San Antonio, hard times took a greater toll on the family. Pennsylvania Central Railroad, the controlling interest for Great Southwest Corporation (which owned Six Flags) tumbled into the greatest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Six Flags had long been the only income-producing subsidiary of Pennsylvania Central Railroad; finally, that single lifeline snapped. Angus Jr., chairman of the board of Great Southwest, felt the losses personally. He suffered a severe stroke.

Angus Wynne never fully recovered. He and Joanne divorced the year before his death because, Shannon says, his father told him “he knew he didn’t have long to live and wanted them both to be happy.” Shannon says his parents probably should have separated much sooner, but that divorce was “against the mores with which they were raised.”

The Wynne family didn’t do much during those years to disappoint Dallas society; even through two bankruptcies the Wynnes were considered among the city’s “oldest and most-respected families.” Stacks of old newspaper clippings describe lavish parties and elaborate decorations in Wynne family homes. Shannon says that although he doesn’t participate in many of the parties, he still believes they are important to society and to business.

The Snakes and the Mongooses, on the other hand, mean a lot to Shannon. They are the two sides of his extended family, which includes 120 cousins. The tradition began with two Tiffany-designed serpents of the Nile cast into a ring and given to Shannon’s great-grandfather after he settled a large lawsuit. Great-grandmother was a Bible beater, though, and she didn’t like the ring one iota. She said the three-headed jeweled snakes were gaudy – like something a gambler would wear. But Great-grandfather not only wore the ring anyway, he also had four copies made and gave one to each of his four sons. This side of the family became known as the Snakes.

A cousin by marriage started the opposing side, the Mongooses. Now every year all the species come together at Six Flags for a reunion, a Snake talent show and the Mongoose initiation of anyone who may have married into the family during the preceding year. The oldest living Mongoose or Snake reigns as queen or king; those who have turned 21 are presented with a ring.

Shannon’s family is pleasantly bizarre, like a lot of other things about this enthusiastic young mover and shaker who wears funny-looking glasses and bites his fingernails. He has his detractors – people who choose to remain anonymous, who say he’s “impossible to work with” or that he’ll be out of a job when “things of depth come back into vogue.”

It’s hard to say whether that’s true – if Shannon’s popularity will fade whenever hi-tech and New Wave make way for whatever fashions are ahead. Shannon’s friendly demeanor changes when words such as “trendy” are used in reference to his bars – when his accomplishments are termed “a flash in the pan.” He grows even angrier when he hears of what he calls “gross generalizations” – comments such as those from one “day-only” customer who says the nighttime crowd at Shannon’s bars would “rather have Porsches than love affairs.”

Shannon is quick to defend his customers-they “aren’t just vacuous marionettes walking around; they’re the pillars of the community.” And he doesn’t plan to allow his bars to become stale: “I bore so quickly; I change so much. My places reflect how I am at the time.”

His newest venture, Tango, which will have the the theme “SUAD” (for “Shut Up And Dance”) will open in the old Greenville Avenue Bank building. He says he’s looking forward to a “one-stop place where 1 know I can have fun.”

He plans a gourmet restaurant somewhere down the road, and says he might try directing a film or dabbling in interior design. Maybe he’ll open another large bar in Santa Fe where his brother David lives.

But whatever Shannon Wynne does, it’sbound to be interesting. His mother describes him with the same words most ofhis friends and acquaintances use: “He’scurious, he’s creative . . . . I don’t knowanybody like him.”