From Pomp Room Denizens to Documentarians
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Austin Kaus never got to have a beer at The Pomp Room, but the Sioux Falls watering hole and rock ’n’ roll music hall — closed for seventeen years now — made a lasting impression on him.
“I don’t know if it will ever be as good as the Pomp Room,” says Kaus, “which makes me sound like an old man, but that combination of atmosphere and reputation and draw… I don’t know if you can replicate that.”
Now, Kaus and longtime friend Jesse Yost are working on a documentary on the legendary (some would say infamous) downtown bar.
Both Kaus and Yost spent many formative nights there — Yost as a singer in bands like 12 1/2 Charlies and the Glory Holes, Kaus as a Wessington Springs teen into punk rock.
In the nineties, all-ages shows punk, indie and metal shows at the Pomp Room catered to subterranean social scenes that didn’t exist in small towns like Wessington Springs. Kaus got into a routine of leaving school early to make those early shows. “I went to a lot of fake dentist appointments,” he recalls.
“I made a lot of pilgrimages there. It was kind of a lifeline for me just to find new music that wasn’t anywhere else.”
“It was an old dive bar that everybody loved,” says Jason Ellsworth, who played there many times with his death metal band, Fall. “You walked through it and your feet would stick to the floors. But, there were truly some amazing nights down there.”
The Pomp Room’s history goes back to the late fifties when Chris and Mae Miller bought the Baxter Bar on Sioux Falls’ downtown Main Street, and renamed it the Pump Room (the following year, “Pump” was changed to “Pomp” to avoid a lawsuit by the more famous Chicago Pump Room).
In 1963, new owner Dale Dean moved the bar to a new building on Dakota Avenue. He sold the Room to Duane and Jeannie Ertz in 1971. The establishment’s reputation as a home for rock n’ roll began in earnest with the Ertzes. Before then, the Room would hire house bands to play country and variety. The Ertzes brought in nationally known touring acts not quite big enough to fill an arena and regional acts like Ivory and Silver Laughter. As disco became ascendant, they bucked the trend kept the joint a leather island in a polyester sea.
By the late eighties/early nineties, it was the premiere local venue for hard rock, hosting shows by bands including Nazareth, Voivod, Acid Bath, Candlebox and Neurosis. The club’s biggest brush with national fame came one night in 1993, when Aerosmith dropped in, with MTV’s Kurt Loder, for an impromptu four-song set after their show at the Arena. It wasn’t a glamorous spot though — it earned a tough reputation.
“It did have this rowdier element,” says Kaus. “I went there to lots and lots of shows as a skinny teenager that weighed a buck forty soaking wet and never had any trouble whatsoever, but there was trouble.”
In 1990, bouncer Scott Fodness was fatally stabbed outside the club.
Perhaps the murder signified the need for a cultural shift, or maybe it was just a freak occurrence that could have happened outside any bar. In any case, change was on the way.
At the time, the local punk and indie rock scene was mostly confined to all-ages shows at a few kids’ basements or garages.
“I started doing shows by bands like Green Day and the Offspring in my garage at home when I was 15,” recalls Terry Taylor. From there, Taylor — who now lives in Lawrence, Kansas and has been promoting events ever since — moved up to putting shows on at Nordic Hall, “kind of the legendary venue in Sioux Falls for all-ages before the Pomp Room.”
Then he had some run-ins with The Man. “I was having trouble with the city,” he recalls. “The city was trying to do this weird dance ordinance thing where they were trying to limit all-ages shows.” It was literally like Footloose, only in Sioux Falls.” The word got out that the weird kids were having fun, so some folks at City Hall duly dusted off an old ordinance that regulated teen dances.
“There was that struggle where punk rock was creeping into the mainstream,” says Taylor, “and you started seeing the colored hair more and adults and government started feeling kind of threatened by it. Now it’s totally the norm.”
(But it wasn’t then. Your SDPB correspondent can verify that the Footloose phenomenon — wherein adult authority figures, who could not abide the thought of kids with weird hair digging dissonant music, litigated — happened in cities around the country. That harassment by The Man, coupled with the standard level peer-enforced high school groupthink, damaged some kids and some self-medicated. But more of them ended up in bigger cities with quirky job titles. They’re the reason that luxury car in the ad you saw last night plays Iggy Pop even though more prospective buyers would prefer Hootie & the Blowfish. They grew up, sold out and now they’re seated in ergonomic office chairs at the controls of the zeitgeist. The town scolds who tried to cramp their style are retired now, probably all alone watching “The Price Is Right” on recliners that reek of Ranch Doritos. The nineties were weird).
“It got so out of control,” says Taylor, “that I had actual judges speaking out for me, because their kids had a nice refuge to go to, that didn’t serve alcohol and was a safe place where people could fit in and have something to look forward to.”
Eventually the city backed off, settling for a limited ordinance that said kids would have to pay another cover if they went outside for a smoke (cigarettes were still a thing then).
Free to promote again, Taylor approached Ward Ertz (he and brother Jonny were now mostly running the place) about doing some shows at the Pomp Room.
The brothers were game, and the all ages shows Taylor started in 1994 brought with them a new generation and new subcultures. “They had it pretty nailed down on the twenty-one plus shows,” Taylor recalls, “but had never really ventured into all-ages. And I think that kind of helped bring the Room into a whole new light.”
At around the same time, local bands like Janitor Bob and the Armchair Cowboys began attracting large enough crowds to headline twenty-one and over shows. “Janitor Bob was the first that made headway and brought their following” recalls Yost, whose older brother Chris played guitar in the band, which did grunge covers and original numbers. “When they started packing the place that kind of opened the door for a lot of other bands. Violet hit about that same time. That was a rebirth of the place.”
The pace of change accelerated with the all-ages shows Taylor brought in. The Pomp Room slowly grew sacred to groups of kids who didn’t fit in just anywhere.
“Every small town, every high school’s got a couple kids that are into stuff that other people aren’t,” says Yost. “That’s just the way it is. You’re an outsider and it’s part of growing up in a small town. And at that age, music can be almost everything in your life. It can tell your story for you, describe the way you’re feeling. It’s not just something to do. It’s part of the way you live every day.” ”
The Pomp Room became a second home for these kids, the outsiders. Another was the long-running record store, Ernie November — “a place where the punks, the goths, the kids who were out slamming a six pack of beer before they came in” would go “to check out the list, to see [what bands] were coming and that’s kind of how you planned your schedule.” But a record store has social limitations. A music hall can be a place for communion, like church but for freaks.
“If you take people who were listening to whatever was playing on the radio at the time,” says Taylor, “they had places to go. Because that stuff came to the Sioux Falls Arena, the Fair, and the city embraced it.”
“The kids who were just discovering the Misfits or the Dead Kennedys or the Sex Pistols or whatever gateway-drug punk rock band you had — I feel like that group of kids, including myself, felt really disenfranchised. We had Ernie November to get our punk rock stuff, or picked up Maximumrocknroll or Flipside, but kids didn’t have a whole lot to do. There wasn’t a skate park at the time. There wasn’t anywhere for them to go, to have something to do. And I think it was really important for the kids to have something to look forward to.”
Kids started looking forward to shows by bands like Sense Field, Corrosion of Conformity, Blink 182, Marilyn Manson and Cannibal Corpse Bands — bands that might not have stopped in Sioux Falls if not for the all-ages series at the Pomp Room.
Often, kids in the audience ended up on stage. Jason Ellsworth — who played both all-ages and drinking-age shows there with Fall — will always remember the first time he took the stage at age nineteen. “That was the goal, was to play the Pomp Room. It was always a big deal to me. If I played a Thursday night for ten people, or a packed house, it felt like it was an honor. It was so legendary in this town that nothing’s been able to fill that void since.”
One of Taylor’s most memorable nights was when he promoted a show by underground legends Fugazi — and opened for them with his band Floodplain. Founder/singer/guitarist Ian MacKaye was already a punk rock legend for his early-eighties band Minor Threat when he started Fugazi. He was also known as a kind of godfather of the “straightedge” movement, and punk DIY culture, and for a well-known list of rules a venue had to respect to get Fugazi on stage.
“There was such a mystique about that band, but doing Fugazi was very nerve-wracking because back then was before the internet. All you had was your hearsay about, ‘Oh my God, Ian MacKaye is so uptight. He won’t play in any club that has a beer sign up.’ You hear all these rumors. So I was nerve-wracked. There’s beer signs everywhere. So they show up, and their sound guy comes up to me and is like, ‘Hey, Ian really needs to talk to you,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh sh__.’ I go up and Ian’s on stage and he’s like, ‘Where’s a good place to eat around here?’” Taylor told him about a place down the street called Szechuan.
Later on that night, the band was playing their ‘hit’ song ‘Waiting Room,’ which features an abrupt stop to a bass line, followed by a moment of silence, then a staccato drum build-up back into the song. “They do the bass line and it stops, and Ian gets on the mic and goes, ‘Terry Taylor told us to go to Szechaun.’” Cue the drums. “About six months later I got a postcard from Ian, from Switzerland and it said ‘thank you so much for making our first South Dakota show awesome.’ I still have that postcard.”
And he still talks to MacKaye on occasion.
For some, those all-ages shows are memorable because they brought together a community. Relationships were forged. Teenagers who thought they were alone discovered they weren’t. Kids “would go out of their way to get to shows to keep the bands coming back and [because] they knew they were guaranteed to run into other people like them down there,” says Yost. “You may not talk to them. There were a lot of introverts. But you knew that everybody felt the same way. Without saying words, you could hang out and watch a show with people and everybody gets it.”
“On my Facebook, I have hundreds of flyers that I scanned in a few years ago in my photo albums,” says Taylor. “Every once in awhile if I’m feeling nostalgic I’ll post one. Always, one or two kids will pop in and be like, ‘That was my first show ever,’ and it changed their life and opened them up to a whole new lifestyle.”
“There’s just not any words to express how those kinds of venues shaped who a lot of us are today.”
Nothing gold can stay they say. After Glory Hole played their final encore, when the last patron swung open the door on New Year’s morn, 1999, the Pomp Room epic was over. But, like the ringing in your ears after a loud show, the memories are hard to shake.
“It was absolutely different after the Pomp Room closed,” says Kaus. “And I don’t think that void was filled until recently. Nutty’s North came close, but there wasn’t a real headquarters for the scene until Total Drag showed up.”
“I miss it,” says Taylor. “Whenever I’m visiting back home and hanging out with my friends from back in the day, there’s never a time that the Pomp Room doesn’t come up in conversation. There’s just something about the timeframe and the aura that just can’t ever be replicated. It was dingy, dirty, but to us it was worth millions.”
So, one night Kaus was performing in a bunny outfit for a music video for Yost’s Christmas-themed band, Sleigher. “We went out for wings after,” he recalls, and they started reminiscing about the Room. “I always wanted to write a book on it.”
Before they’d polished off the last wingette they decided to do a documentary.
“There’s a lot of good footage,” says Yost, but they would be glad to see more if you have some video or pictures lying in the basement and would like to share (https://www.facebook.com/pomproomdoc/). “If they had closed five years later, there would have been a ton more.”
“There’s a couple key pieces of media we’re still working on. There’s a few things that we’re trying to track down. Some of it’s kind of urban legend — you hear about how somebody might have a tape of this show or that show and you try to chase it down.”
The pair has brought in SDPB alum Bryan Middleton to edit. All three have day jobs, but the project is moving forward. One day maybe not too long from now, a filmic antidote to the hole left in your heart by the Pomp Room’s demise will reel itself across some dirty projector.
I think one of the reasons we do this documentary is because it’s important for people with any sort of connection to South Dakota or music at all to know that this place existed,” says Kaus. “And it was, I think, not a once in a lifetime thing but once in ever.”
“I wish I would have said that more cleverly.”