Filmmakers are raising funds for a documentary about the Lizard Lounge aka The Church
Many businesses have closed under the financial weight of the coronavirus pandemic, and one of the biggest losses in Dallas’ music community has been the closure of the Lizard Lounge and the church on Swiss Avenue.
The locations not only gave people a place to listen and perform music or even catch a glimpse of a big celebrity like Madonna, Dennis Rodman or Deadmau5. They built something so special that people reacted to the closures as if it were the sudden death of a best friend.
“When it was announced that the store was closing, and walking through those double doors one last time, it felt like walking through a portal,” says film producer and regular Austin Hayes. “From that optimism to holding that this isn’t happening, to stepping into reality and feeling the heaviness and weight of everyone’s collective sadness, this place just didn’t mean a lot to me. It meant a lot to so many people for so many years.”
Hayes says he decided the place needed a documentary to explore more than just its history and the wild tales of its 28-year partying for the goths and other “outsiders” that allowed people to come like this as they are. It needed documentation from its founder and owner, Don Nedler, whose vision fueled it for so long and how it helped its regulars and even its guests to find some form of acceptance within themselves and each other. So Hayes approached film director Timothy Stevens and the two began work on a documentary called Dark Sanctuary: The History of the Church that’s raising money for its production with an IndieGoGo campaign.
“There are people I’ve interviewed who don’t even like to talk about it on camera because it gets so emotional,” says Stevens.
Nedler opened the EDM club and goth hangout in 1991 because he “knew there was something special about this place,” according to an interview he did with the Dallas Observer in 2020 shortly after its closure.
“It was everything you ever wanted — close to Deep Ellum, a chandelier, two parking lots,” Nedler said. “It met the criteria for a successful nightclub. I figured we’d do well for five years.”
The building’s sacred aesthetic gave it its theme and name, which also feeds into the documentary’s title, says Hayes.
“I would say that we have chosen a very appropriate title Dark Sanctuary because it felt like the Lizard Lounge was a sanctuary for so many people,” says Hayes. “Not only could they escape, but they could be. They could be absolutely whoever they want. The Lizard Lounge was a sanctuary and outlet to be yourself. They hit all walks of life: fetishists, gay, straight, non-binary, drag queens. Everyone was there and there was this collective understanding of respecting each other without entering into prejudice. I think that’s what it meant for a lot of people; a place where they could go and not be judged.”
According to Stevens, people needed a place to be themselves, especially in the era of condemnation and panic in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when needless fears arose, fueled by the “satanic panic” of clerics and the media became.
“I don’t mean to belittle anyone, but I feel like it’s easy now to be goth and be accepted,” says Stevens. “In the early ’80s and ’90s, you could get arrested for wearing a trench coat. Misfits, misfits, and all creatives, until The Church came along, they had no connection with each other.”
Nedler also saw the future of music in DJs, whom Stevens dubbed “the new rock stars.” Stevens recalls a story Nedler told him about a trip to Miami to scout for new musical talent, when he saw a club hosting an industry music night called The Church, which played “a little bit retro but dark industrial music.” became. Very hard, very innovative music.”
“He brought that back to Dallas,” says Stevens. “I think he saw a burgeoning genre and community that had no context at all. He saw that the environmental aesthetic was very important to the goth community, or ‘vibe’ was the word they were using at the time.”
Nedler is also involved as a producer on the documentary, and Hayes says they spent many hours speaking to him and other regulars and fixed stars who remember nights Chuck Norris walked in the door, or the rumour that Joan Jett’s video for “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” was filmed in the famous building on Swiss Avenue. There is even a legend that the place is haunted.
“Whenever I first interacted with Don, he approached it like a business meeting, and I felt like he put that wall of steel between us and him,” says Hayes. “He felt how sincere we were and how committed we are to this cause. That wall has been lowered and he has warmed to us very much. To the extent that he’s come up to us and asked, ‘How’s everything going?’ and ‘Do you need my help?’ My impression of him is that when you gain his trust, that warmth he gives is very reassuring.”
Of course, the film is not only intended to honor Nedler’s contribution to a community that he helped build. It’s also for the community that’s still looking for the next place like Lizard Lounge or The Church to call home again.
“We’re making this film for them, and we’re making this film for the people who don’t know about it,” says Hayes. “I’ve never been to Studio 54, but man, that would have been the tits. I want this story to be sold so they can be inspired. So the kid in small town Kansas, Nebraska or whatever, you name it, they know there are others like them or others who want to express themselves and that there are ways in this world to be yourself.”