Saving a Texas treasure

02/10/2014 9:31 PM

02/10/2014 9:37 PM

The story of the Western Kountry Klub sounds like an old country song. Standing on the outskirts of Mansfield as defiantly as a Johnny Cash lyric, the historic Texas dance hall has weathered neglect, progress, rock ‘n’ roll and time.

“If you look closely, you might see the roof is sagging or the wall is dirty,” said Russ Boozer of Mansfield. “But all you see when you walk in are the twinkling lights and friendly faces. You feel like you’re home.”

The Western Kountry Klub is a dying breed, one of only a couple hundred Texas dance halls, scattered across the state as randomly as fields of bluebonnets. From small-town Gruene Hall to Fort Worth’s massive Billy Bob’s Texas, these cavernous buildings glow with neon lights and ring with the sound of steel guitars. In some places, like Luckenbach, the town might fade away, but the dance hall keeps on thumping.

The Western Kountry Klub refuses to die. Country music superstar George Strait immortalized the building, filming portions of his movie “Pure Country” there in 1992, while singer David Ball staged a music video at the club. But the hall has seen some rough times.

“We’ve been out here when we were the only ones here -- and there was no air conditioning,” recalled Boyd Williams of Venus, who has been coming to the club for 29 years with his wife, Linda. “Now, you have to have reservations or you’re not going to get in.”

They haven’t had to turn anyone away from the 57-year-old dance hall yet, but it does fill to capacity just about every Saturday night. Regulars and new devotees like its low-key atmosphere, 2,000-square-foot hard oak dance floor and low cover charge, which is usually $10 unless there’s a bigger-name band.

“It’s not like a bar,” said Boozer, who admits he drove past the old hall for a dozen years before he finally went in for a birthday party. “It’s not a smoky honky tonk. Guys are not cruising and there’s no waiting in line to get a beer. I’ve never seen anybody get out of control.”

Because the Western Kountry Klub doesn’t sell alcohol, it’s BYOB, the clientele ranges from ages 4 to 94. Teen-agers like Tyler Gurley of Waxahachie and Casey Brooks of Mansfield learned to dance on the big wood floor, just like generations before them.

“When you go to Billy Bob’s or Cowboys, if you don’t know how to dance, they laugh at you,” said Brooks, 19. “They don’t do that here.”

Other folks have been coming so long that they have their names on the table -- literally. People who come every Saturday for six months earn the right to put plaques with their names on their special table. Some, like Boyd and Linda Williams, have worn out a couple of tables and several chairs.

“We love to dance and see all of our friends,” Boyd Williams said. “You can get in for $10 and bring your own booze.”

A group of devoted fans have circled the wagons -- cleaning bathrooms, waxing the floor, fixing the plumbing -- determined that the old white metal barn will continue to provide people with a place to boot scoot. And it has survived everything from holes in the roof to government-mandated upgrades, although the end has seemed near more than once, even closing for two weeks.

Opened as a skating rink in 1957 that hosted weekend dances, the building changed to a BYOB dance hall in 1972 when Wanda “Mom” Hendrick purchased it. Bill and Gerry Garner took over running the hall after Garner died in 2006, but by the end of 2009 they were ready to retire. That’s when Jerry and Barbara Cook, who had been playing the club with their Mack & Dyan Band, took over.

“We had played other clubs that had shut down,” Barbara Cook said. “When they announced this was going to close, we said we couldn’t let it happen.”

When the area was annexed by Grand Prairie a couple of years ago, the building did not measure up to city code. The cost to update it was overwhelming.

“We don’t own it and we couldn’t put that kind of money into it, all new plumbing, wiring, parking,” Barbara Cook said. “When we announced (that we were closing), people went nuts. Enough people talked to enough people and between selling paintings and donations, we were able to make the upgrades.”

Miles Hutchinson and his wife, Marsha, of Arlington followed the Mack & Dyan Band to the Western Kountry Klub four years ago. Back then, the club’s flaws were a little more evident.

“There were holes in the floor from termite damage,” Hutchinson remembered. “I touched the walls and my fingertips went through the wall. Some had cardboard and chicken wire behind them. They said they didn’t have the money to fix it. I said ‘we have to hide it.’”

That’s when Hutchinson started painting 4-foot black and white cutouts of famous country singers on pieces of Styrofoam to cover the walls. So far, he’s painted 50, but not all of them still hang at the Kountry Klub. Some have sold for hundreds of dollars, which he splits with the Cooks, who use the money to maintain the building.

When he’s not painting, he’s cleaning or waxing the floor, while his wife helps run the concession stand.

“We don’t know how long this place is going to last,” Hutchinson said. “It’s like a little old lady. You put lipstick on it and it works.”

Jerry Cook says he will keep the old hall open as long as he can.

“It could be something structural (that closes it),” he said. “It will probably be development. They’ll put in half-million-dollar homes down the road and they aren’t going to want to look at this old barn.”

That would be a shame, Boozer said.

“This is a Texas treasure,” he said. “Once it’s gone, you can’t replicate it somewhere else. It’s a Texas dance hall.”

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