Born-Again Deep Ellum Club Owner Opens The Door
Date Wednesday, January 26, 2000
Source STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
In the early ’80s, Russell Hobbs moved from his suburban home in Richardson and took up residence in Deep Ellum, back when Deep Ellum was street after street of unkempt warehouses, abandoned buildings and unrealized dreams. Then in his late 20s, Hobbs was struck with a vision: To open a club that would cater to left-of-center artistic types – bands, poets, artists and actors who didn’t fit in with the status quo.
A road paver for Deep Ellum’s growth as a nightlife playground, Hobbs’ first club, Theatre Gallery, was born in 1984 on Commerce Street, and it was the site for everything from underground rock shows to plays to poetry readings. The same went for his second club, the Prophet Bar, which booked similarly insurgent performances.
So much has changed since then, Hobbs says, and so much has not. Today, years after Hobbs found Christ and turned away from Deep Ellum for a life of seclusion in East Texas, the 41-year-old entrepreneur is back in Dallas pursuing his original mission: To spotlight artists who don’t exactly fit in.
Although his goal hasn’t changed, his agenda has.
“God gave me the vision to open a new place,” says Hobbs, who says he found Christianity 13 years ago via a born-again janitor. “The vision has to do with our society and how it’s segregated and departmentalized. The Door stands between two of those establishments, the church and the secular bar world. It’s for all the people who don’t fit into either.”
Opened by Hobbs in May 1998, The Door is an all-ages venue catering to – but, Hobbs points out, not limited to – Christian artists. In Deep Ellum’s maze of bars, live-music venues, restaurants and pretty-people meat markets, The Door wasn’t expected to survive. Christian-rock venues generally struggle anyway, but one planted on the outskirts of Deep Ellum (the club sits at 3202 Elm St., away from the congestion of the area) seemed destined for failure. On the contrary, not only has The Door survived, it has thrived, supported by a circle of fans and bands that, as Hobbs says, consider it a middle ground between church life and club life.
“I’d say it’s probably the best thing to happen to Christian music in a long time,” says Chuck Dennie, lead singer for By the Tree, a popular Fort Worth Christian rock-pop band that plays the venue once a month and has released two CDs, Shoot Me Down and Passion for Jesus. “It’s a place where Christians can go, but it’s not necessarily threatening to non-Christians. Offering something like that, I think that’s the best thing a Christian can do.” Hobbs, naturally, agrees. In fact, he says places like The Door, where young people can mingle and worship without the pressures of church, are the wave of the future. “Young people wanna talk about God and life every night, not just from 10 to 12 on Sunday,” he says.
There’s no denying The Door’s popularity with an across-the-board crowd. On a recent Friday night, the club is jammed. Young Christians and non-Christians, sporting Seventeen and GQ fashions, mix and mingle, talking about guys, girls and God. A 17-year-old girl in a skirt buzzes by, clutching the phone number of a cute guy. Two teens are huddled at a corner table, quietly sipping soft drinks and talking about the latest disc from Jars of Clay, a national Christian-rock band; some even smoke.
Balancing these two worlds has been an uphill battle. Hobbs says the club has taken flack, ironically, from the people it’s trying to attract. “We catch criticism from the Christians who say, ‘Why do you let people smoke in here? Why do you let non-Christian bands play?’ ” he says. “Then we catch flack from non-Christians, because people who come here wanna talk about God, and they don’t.
“People just don’t understand what we’re doing,” Hobbs says. “People are selfish – they wanna go to a show and have it just be perfect for them. There’s a greater cause going on at The Door. What we do is desegregate religious stereotypes.”
Hobbs says that newcomers to The Door will be surrounded by religion, but not by the strict standards of organized religion. “Big churches have the guy in the robe that controls everyone. My values are so different,” he says. “I don’t look up to the pope. Who I do look up to is Jesus, and he doesn’t care about superficial things, if you have tattoos or piercings or colored hair. He looks at your heart.”
Hobbs didn’t always feel this way. When he opened his first two clubs, he admits he was absorbed in rock ‘n’ roll’s typical, decadent lifestyle.
“Oh, yeah, I smoked pot every day, drank every night, had sex with different girls,” he says. “The world was my playground.”
When Hobbs was born-again in 1987, his Prophet Bar began to live up to its name. Instead of hard-core punk acts, there were Christian rockers. Drugs and drinking were replaced by Bible studies and praying.
But in 1991, Deep Ellum was quickly turning into a commercial zone, and the real-estate pressure for Hobbs to conform the Prophet to the area’s changing face was more than he could take. So he bailed and left for East Texas, where he spent the next several years finding himself and his true calling. His true calling, he says, was opening The Door.
“In some ways, I haven’t changed at all,” Hobbs says of his two lives as a club owner. “I was real passionate and visionary then, and I’m that way now. But now the biggest reward doesn’t have to do with me. The biggest reward is seeing the people whose lives have changed because of us, seeing the fruits of our labor pay off and seeing lives change for the better.”
Malcolm Mayhew, (817) 390-7713
PHOTO(S): Ken Lawdermilk