This historic Dallas venue’s glitz and grit made a perfect backdrop for our spring fashion shoot.
Owner Jay LaFrance loves to recount the musical luminaries who have graced the Longhorn Ballroom’s stage, but some of his favorite stories about the venue involve guns or crime. There’s still a bullet hole in a back door from when some angry husband fired into the green room, where his wife was keeping a performer company. Another couple of holes in the abdomen of a life-size fiberglass generic Plains Indian in the parking lot show where some concertgoer — or perhaps performer — apparently got carried away playing cowboy. (LaFrance left up the Indian and a lady counterpart as relics of a bygone, less culturally courteous time, but he painted over the sign reading “We Likem Dance” at daughter Amber’s urging.)
The venue was built by Dallas real estate mogul O.L. Nelms in 1950 for a friend, Western swing icon Bob Wills, and originally called the Bob Wills Ranch House. It was renamed the Longhorn Ballroom in 1958, when Nelms sold it to business partner Dewey Grooms. Jack Ruby managed part of the ballroom as a separate venue from Grooms’ half of the place and frequently brought friends from the Chicago underworld of organized crime through the back door. One night after closing, LaFrance says, the club was broken into. Mysteriously, only Grooms’ safe was stolen from.
As would be expected from the Longhorn’s beginnings as a Western swing joint complete with kitschy cowboy-themed decorations and stalls for Wills’ horses, dozens of country music artists performed there. Pictures and memorabilia framed in the front entry feature Willie, Waylon, Merle, Hank Jr., Conway Twitty, Ernest Tubb, George Jones, Ray Charles, Ray Price, Loretta Lynn, Lucinda Williams, and more. But after Grooms sold to Ira Zack, just about every genre of music has twanged, snarled, or thumped inside.
The Sex Pistols’ January 10, 1978, show there — during which dope-sick bassist Sid Vicious taunted and spat blood on the crowd after getting his nose smashed (by a bottle or fist or headbutt depending whom you ask) — is legendary, and you’ve probably laughed at the juxtaposition in a famous photo of their band name above Merle Haggard’s on the marquee. Jackson Brown, B.B. King, the Ramones, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sarah Jaffe, Al Green, Megadeth, and others have been onstage. Queen of Tejano Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, too. Aerosmith filmed the music video for “What It Takes” — depicting an outrageous bar fight — there. Refusing to go onstage before they were paid, raunch-rappers 2 Live Crew made national headlines in 1990 by not performing at the ballroom, setting off a riot.
Raul Ramirez owned and operated the Longhorn Ballroom for about 20 years, starting in 1996. After a heavy storm blew down the historic barn-shaped sign that topped the marquee, Dan Holzschuh, a restorer of historic electrical signs, got a call from a friend who had previously worked on the sign alerting him that the sign lay in a twisted heap in the back parking lot. Holzschuh went and found a side panel had been removed. He figured it had already been picked apart but regardless climbed inside, where to his surprise he found the controller — a player pianolike device that automates light features — and all the transformers were still intact. He was backing out of the tiny house-size sign with the controller in his hand when he heard a voice command him to set it on the ground and put his hands up. He turned around to see a pistol in his face. “You’re going to jail, boy,” he recalls Ramirez telling him before he managed to talk his way out of the predicament.
About a dozen years later, the sign that’s announced more superstars than can be listed here was finally fully restored in time for the September 9, 2017, Stetsons & Stilettos charity party that marked the reopening. Holzschuh, Ramirez, and LaFrance stood together and watched it light up again.
For our spring fashion shoot …
Photography: Courtesy Longhorn Ballroom and Taylor Presley
From our April 2020 issue.