'It was our Fillmore': Metro Phoenix had never seen a club quite like Dooley's in Tempe

The Arizona Republic takes a look at some of the gone-but-not-forgotten venues on the metro Phoenix music scene.

Ed Masley
Arizona Republic

It was the summer of 1976 when Linda Thompson Smith, a DJ and music director at KDKB-FM, approached her friend Danny Zelisko, an aspiring concert promoter, about a club that had recently opened on East Apache Boulevard in Tempe.

Dooley's was doing all right as a new club in town, drawing kids from nearby Arizona State University to drink and dance to cover bands playing the hits. 

But Thompson Smith saw Dooley's as a perfect place for Zelisko to bring in up-and-coming touring acts. At that point, promoter Doug Clark had a lock on the 2,650-capacity theater-in-the-round, the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix.

'Petty was so tickled.'The night Tom Petty jammed with Muddy Waters at Dooley's

Dooley's was a good place to get started

Dooley's was smaller — room for 750 people seated or 1,000 if you lost the chairs.

"It was a good enough size, a good place to get started," Thompson Smith says. "It was kind of on a whim. I had been there a few times. And I just said, 'You should go talk to these people.'"

The next day, Zelisko was standing in Dooley's, sizing up the possibilities.

"I was just knocked out by it," he says. "It was all old barn wood and carpeting, beautiful sound and lights. It was like being in a barn, only very clean and classy. For a club, it was magnificent. Nobody ever had a place like that before."

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Dooley's hired Danny Zelisko for $80 a week

Zelisko arranged a meeting with Don Reno, the owner of Dooley's, and came away from that first conversation with a steady gig — $80 a week to handle all of the bookings. 

"At the time, they were doing these Top 40 cover bands that did the circuit coast to coast," Zelisko says.

"It was very homogenized. They were good bands. But I never booked them. I convinced Don I would be the guy that could bring a completely different awareness to the club and really make it famous because of the famous names playing there."

His first booking there in late 1976 was the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

The names would get more famous as he went along.

From Chuck Berry to Elvis Costello

Muddy Waters and Danny Zelisko at Dooley's in Tempe.

His first "real show," as Zelisko likes to call it, was Chuck Berry on Jan. 19, 1977. 

Before the year was out, the club had hosted shows by Muddy Waters, Taj Mahal, New Riders of the Purple Sage, John Mayall, Gato Barbieri and an up-and-coming band from Rockford, Illinois, Cheap Trick. 

Zelisko also started Evening Star Productions when Reno said he'd never heard of Taj Mahal and didn't want to put the money up for that one.

The year ended with Zelisko being summoned into Reno's office. 

"He goes 'D Boy' — that's what he called me — 'We don't want to be at risk for these shows. These people are crazy. Let us run our business and you book the bands.'"

The owner fronted him the money for his first show — Grover Washington Jr. in January of '78.

And that's when Dooley's really started taking off, hosting early Phoenix dates by countless legends of the punk and New Wave era: The Ramones (with the Runaways opening), Elvis Costello & the Attractions, DEVO, Blondie, the Police, Joe Jackson, Iggy Pop, Squeeze, Talking Heads and Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers, to name a few.

But Dooley's hosted shows by legendary artists in a wide variety of genres, from John Prine to James Brown, B.B. King and Gentle Giant. Herbie Mann played Dooley's. So did Sam & Dave. And Black Uhuru. 

Danny Zelisko and his brother Jimmy backstage with B.B. King at Dooley's.

Zelisko calls Dooley's 'our Fillmore'

"It was our Fillmore," Zelisko says, referring to Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. 

"We got a lot of really good shows in there that otherwise wouldn't have played here in those years."

John Dixon, an Arizona music historian and DJ who worked for Evening Star as a production manager, agreed.

"I don't know what the official capacity was. But I remember that Danny could always fudge a little and maybe get 1,100 people in there," he says. 

"But at the same time, he could book a show that drew 300 people and make money because he got the door and Dooley's got the bar. So it was kind of the ideal place for those up-and-coming bands."

Dooley's became part of the national circuit

It was a step up from the smaller rock clubs but less daunting than a concert hall or the Celebrity. Dooley's provided an entry point for artists on the rise.

"Phoenix had enough radio play on new young bands that hadn't played the area before," Thompson Smith says. "And Dooley's was a good place for young artists to get known more and build their audience."

Zelisko says an artist "had to play there in this market to go to the next level."

As word got out that metro Phoenix had a place like Dooley's, it became part of a national circuit of midsize venues. 

Autographed photo of Joan Jett and the Runaways at Dooley's in Tempe.

"That's how we ended up getting Joan Jett," Zelisko says. "That's how we got the Police. And Squeeze. And the Ramones, the Runaways and Talking Heads. Because this was the size place these guys had to play."

The location didn't hurt.

"It was East Apache, really close to the university, so you could tap into that audience as well as just the general East Valley crew," Thompson Smith says. "It had a lot going for it."

No backstage restrooms for the talent

The only drawback Zelisko can think of is it had no bathroom in the dressing room.

That meant a guy like Iggy Pop or Muddy Waters had to choose between sharing a restroom with his audience or walking up the sidewalk and around the corner to the employee restroom.

"Oftentimes in rock clubs, the people who construct these things don't think of where the bands are gonna sit and hang out," Zelisko says.

Danny Zelisko and Iggy Pop with Zelisko's original Evening Star partner, Bill Niblick.

"But that's the kind of little (expletive) that wasn't done that would have made the place absolutely perfect for the bands. If they ever complained about anything, that was one of them."

Dixon says there were more problems. A lot of bands were disappointed they were forced to scale down their production at Dooley's. 

"You couldn't hang anything above the stage," he says.

"And the stage was wide but not too deep. So a lot of bands had to leave stuff in their van because it wouldn't fit on stage. And some poor opening bands literally had four feet in front of the front line of the headlining act."

There was also a problem with the sound bouncing off the mirrors in the back.

"It just wasn't a Class A venue production-wise," Dixon says. "But with the right sound guy, you could get it sounding pretty good in there."

Tucson had a Dooley's all its own

As Zelisko was establishing Dooley's on the touring circuit, Reno opened another location in Tucson, a 400-capacity room in a three-story church at University and Euclid. Zelisko handled the booking there as well.

The walls were brick, not wood, but it had the same kind of vibe as the venue in Tempe and even worse accommodations for the bands.

"But we had some great shows in there," Zelisko says. "Spirit and Al DiMeola played there. Muddy Waters. Jerry Riopelle. It was fun."

When Dooley's became After the Gold Rush

In 1983, Dooley's was sold to new owners, who renamed it After the Gold Rush. It changed hands again in 1994, becoming the Electric Ballroom.

Zelisko isn't fond of the cosmetic changes the Electric Ballroom owners made.

"These guys were from Hollywood and the Van Halen school of rock," he says.

"Nice guys, but real Spicoli types. They spray-painted the walls of Dooley's black. This was supposed to make it cooler and more underground and sinister or whatever. I thought it looked terrible."

Those owners also didn't have the cash to keep it up, Zelisko says. 

"So it did get rundown after a while. But it was still a good room. And the shows there were still magic. So that was the main thing."

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Today, the site is a charter school, the New School for the Arts & Academics.

Thompson Smith has fond memories of Dooley's.

"It was a really nice room," she says.

"It had a great feel. And I loved the size of it. It was intimate. You could get really close."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.