I was able to sit down and talk with director Austin Kaus about his upcoming documentary, The Pomp Room: A Rock N Roll Bar Story.
What or who inspired you to do this project?
The Pomp Room inspired me. I just fell in love with that place the first time I was there, even if it was a little intimidating for a little 15- year-old from Wessington Springs.
We’d go into the dark grungy bar to see a band called Neurosis. My buddy’s like, you’ll love these guys! So I got out of school early and used my dad’s car, but at that age, I was still too scared to drive in Sioux Falls because it was such a big city. (laughs)
I had been to a few punk rock shows here and there. I was probably 14 when I went to my first one, which is actually out here (Rapid City). I just loved it! That music always appealed to me.
So then I started going to shows. No place has ever been like the next, but the Pomp Room, there was something that just clicked and so it always stuck with me and I kept going to shows. I went to college in Vermillion and was going to shows there. I remember where I was in biology class reading the Argus Leader when I saw that it was closing . I got a little emotional. It’s one of those things you think, especially when you’re young, you think everything’s just going to be there forever. And to have that gone sucked, and I just never stopped thinking about it.
I mean, my wife and I have been together now for 12 years. It got to the point where when we’d drive on Dakota in Sioux Falls, I’d be like, “You know what used to be over here?” Finally after a few years, she started saying “Yes, the Pomp Room, where you saw GWAR and you miss it very much.” She’s nice about it, but I was like, ooh, I do bring that up every time.
So, to flash forward a little bit, I was in grad school in Vermillion. My buddy, who is now my directing partner, Jesse Yost, he had a band called SLEIGHER that they still plays once in a while. It’s all Christmas songs.
I actually saw him with the Hegg Brothers and they did their Christmas concert at the Pavilion. He was dressed from head to toe with a Christmas type suit – like a green reindeer type suit. He was wearing Rudolph antlers on his head and was singing a few songs. He was pretty dang entertaining.
He’s so much fun on stage. I love those guys and I love his intensity for Christmas! I think if I wished him Merry Christmas right now, he wouldn’t bat an eye. He’d be like, “Yeah, it is nearly Christmas” and yet it’s, you know, July.
They were filming a video in the building used to be Nutty’s North. He said, “Hey, I need someone to dress up in a bunny suit and dance like an idiot for a music video. Would you be interested?” That’s really all you needed to say! So I did that – danced around, realized that I wasn’t in very good shape but didn’t care. We went out for wings afterwards and started talking about the Pomp Room. He has older brothers that would sneak him into the Pomp Room. He ended up playing in bands at the Pomp Room. He didn’t grow up in the Pomp Room, but in a way, he did. He cut his musical teeth there. We just started talking about how much we love the place and I was like, man, I always wanted to write a book on this.
By the end of the wings, we decided, let’s make a movie – and years and years later, it’s actually happening. I’m pretty stoked!
This all started back in 2014 – is that correct?
That sounds pretty close. That drive was always there for both of us. We loved that place. To this day, we love that place as if we could walk to the door right now.
We’re both pretty stubborn people. Once we decide to do something, it’s going to get done. We don’t know what timeframe, but it’s going to get done and yeah, we’re almost there.
What were the challenges that you faced while making this documentary?
A distinct lack of pictures and video! The video was always tough. We knew going into this it would be tough because we grew up in that same time — pre iPhone, and I wasn’t borrowing my aunt’s camcorder to go to shows because that sounds like a good way to break my aunt’s camcorder.
There’s just not much video out there. We don’t have really anything from the seventies. We do have some stuff from the eighties and nineties, but nowhere near what we wanted. Trying to find video which you want for a documentary was really hard.
Even images were hard because a lot of people weren’t taking cameras to shows! Jesse and I laugh a lot about thinking after this movie comes out, people are going to definitely be like, “Oh, I’ve got all these pictures from the GWAR show, I should have given them to you.” We’re mentally prepared for that.
Finding actual content was absolutely the toughest part because it just wasn’t the time when people were strolling around with cameras or video cameras. Thankfully, some of the eighties stuff — you’d have people who are now professional photographers that were taking their camera and getting stuff. We’ve got some beautiful, beautiful shots.
It’s crazy because you and I are pretty much the same age and me, coming from Pierre, I never really knew much about the Pomp Room until I came to college down here in Sioux falls in 1998, the last year before it was done and I didn’t know much about it. That’s kind of when I first heard about it. For this interview, I’m looking up old videos on YouTube. I ended up watching an entire Janitor Bob concert that someone had from the Pomp Room. It sounded great! You can’t really see a lot because it’s dark, so you can’t really see what the Pomp Room looked like, so I never knew what it looked like, but just looked like an awesome place! Do you even know how many people could it hold?
It started off as just one building and then they just kind of slowly expanded. They went through a period of several expansions. I think the final we thought of was a little above 700, if I remember right. Between 700 and 750. When they first opened, I think they could hold 200 max.
I don’t recall ever not being sweaty in that place. I never went to a poorly attended show at the Pomp Room. I’m sure there were some, but man, that place could get packed and hot and sweaty and loud. That was all part of the beauty.
That actually kind of blows my mind even more because, 700, 750 people, and then you see people like, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Marilyn Manson and all these big names just show up to play at a bar in South Dakota for 700 people? That’s just crazy!
I could talk about this for eight hours straight. It started off with, they had either no music or maybe a little bit of country, then when Duane and Jeannie Ertz bought it on April 1st, 1971, it didn’t take long for them to go, “I think we’re going to do a rock bar.” That one decision just turned the whole trajectory of the place. It started out with bands doing multiple sets a night for many, many nights. That was one of the coolest things I’ve learned from this movie. I had no idea that that’s how bands were. I always thought bands just drove place to place and play, not getting these solid gigs. Some of these bands would talk about playing there for two weeks on, two weeks off for over a year. That’s intense.
They kept expanding. They bought the building next door. They buy the building next door, they build out there. Then as the times kind of changed, somewhere in the eighties, they started getting some national acts, and it just started to boom.
They made the choice to not go down the disco route, and instead they were like “We’re just going to get heavier!” That made all the difference in the world.
I did read that back in 2015, Paul Saxton agreed to buy the former SIDS liquor building downtown. He was possibly thinking about turning that into the Pomp Room 2.0, basically, around September or so, and they said they could possibly open it up by Thanksgiving of that year. That never happened, obviously, because apparently someone blew the story out of proportion or whatever, but it was at least in discussion. So that got me wondering, if that ever happened, do you think a place like the Pomp Room could succeed in Sioux falls today?
When I think of a place like the Pomp Room, I think of how established it was. You could build a brand new building. You could build an exact representation of the Pomp Room — ideally with cleaner carpets, but it was the charm — but you’re still opening a brand new place.
The thing about the Pomp Room was, one family bought it in ‘71 and ran it until it was done. So that was, what, 27 years? It just kept building and building. They weren’t booking Aerosmith the first year they were open. Just kind of like anything else, it takes building a reputation.
They were really keen on treating the band members right. They legitimately liked the music, so they treated the musicians like humans instead of as a commodity. I think that helped build and build the reputation to those truly great clubs. You can’t just spring up. You could put a name on it if you want, but it’s not going to be the same. Somebody could open CBGBs in Des Moines right now, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be like CBGBs was in New York City before it closed. It doesn’t really matter what the name of the club is. It matters the people running it, how they’re running it and what they’re booking.
That’s where the original Pomp Room came in, and that’s how the original Pomp Room became the legend that it is now. So somebody could still buy a building and slap a Pomp Room sign on it, but it’s not going to be the same because you simply can’t just make that happen.
How has this experience, all this exposure for you personally been like? You’ve been everywhere from Keloland to South Dakota Public Broadcasting. It’s obviously gotta be a little bit of a shock to you, right?
I was kind of prepared. I mean, it’s crazy. I’ve never done anything like this. This is the biggest creative project I’ve ever done. It that in itself has been an experience. I’ve never worked this hard on something and been this confident that I’m proud of the product. I am excited to share this movie. I think it turned out amazing. You could lose yourself and go, well, we could add this, could add this, could add this. Nobody wants to go to a four and a half hour documentary right now. 20 people might stay and the rest will leave.
From the beginning, it’s been amazing. People who are stoked about the Pomp Room, people who remember and love the Pomp Room and have multiple generations — like you have our generation who were playing or going to the all ages shows. Those didn’t even start until the mid-nineties. You’ve got a whole generation before that knew it as a rowdier place. As a place where Aerosmith came, the place where you stuck to the carpet.
That stuff started happening and I would bring it up to people. I would bring up to people years ago, to the folks that looked as about as square as square can be, and they would go, “Oh, the Pomp Room, I love that place!” I’m like, ”Really? Do you want to tell me your stories then?” Sometimes they would go “No!”
It just keeps coming from every direction. It comes from people who are younger than us saying, you know, I always heard about the Pomp Room, I heard when Blink 182 played there before they exploded. I heard about this and this, I heard about Manson. They missed the whole thing and yet are still excited about it because of the legend that’s been passed around from multiple generations.
When we started, we started a Facebook page and had about 2,000 likes in a short amount of time. I remember Jesse and I both turning to each other and just saying, “Holy shit! There are people out there who really want this!”
It’s exciting that people are excited about it. Obviously, you’ve put in this much time and effort and money into it. You want people to see it. Half of this is we’re making this for the Pomp Room people! For the people that want to get as close as you can to relive in that place again, because they have such great memories, whether they’re our generation, the generation before.
This is kind of a historical document with some profanity and laughs that hopefully will remind people of this place that was like an embassy or a home or a safe haven, or, you know, a place of debauchery. Hopefully they’re going to see this and smile a lot. I really think that they will. I’m still smiling. I have watched so many edits of this that I long ago lost track, and I’m still laughing at things.
We did a thing where we had the owner draw out the blueprint on a napkin. Because then we could show how the bar changed, how the stage moved, etc. The first time I saw the last expansion they did — seeing that layout, and even after years of working on this and seeing the other napkin drawing, seeing that layout, I teared up a little bit because it was like, that’s as close as I’m going to get to ever be in the Pomp Room again. It took me right back, even though I’ve been working on the movie, there was something special about seeing that exact layout. Especially because I noticed there’s an entire section that we didn’t even know existed as kids, because they would stack kegs or beer boxes in front of it. They didn’t want us little yahoos back there. That place is special to me. That place left its mark on me both mentally and, given the state of those carpets, possibly physically. Those bathrooms were pretty rough, but you know, that trained me for a lot of variety of venue bathrooms in my concert-going life!
Is it safe to say, after your run of DVDs, we’ll have a Zach Snyder type cut? Like an eight hour version of the movie?
I don’t know if I use those words although I did like that Justice League cut a lot more than I thought I would.
I don’t know if we’d do an extended version or not, but the Blu-ray or the DVD will have a lot of extra features. There’s a lot of stuff that is great, there are a lot of lines that are funny, there are a lot of stories that are heartfelt. There are some performances that we tracked down that we’d love to share with people that want to see them. That stuff will all be on the DVD. Once the premier gets done and we do some screenings and things and hopefully hit the film festivals, then we’ll start hammering on that.
Talk about the fundraiser that you guys have going on. What items are for sale? What does it benefit?
It varies from as low as 10 bucks where we made a custom postcard that Jesse and I will send our thanks and our cheers with. We have two different t-shirts. We have a reprint of a classic design which is cool! I’m excited about every bit of the merch, because I want every bit of it because I have zero merch.
Somebody gave me a couple stickers, original stickers while I was working on this. That is all the Pomp Room and stuff I have other than the ticket stubs and the flyers I kept. I’m stoked about all this! We have a new updated Pomp Room logo for one of the shirts. The other shirt is a two-sided reprint of a classic Pomp Room shirt. Everything has to have a little bit of soul of the Pomp Room in it, or it would just be kind of lame.
We have pint glasses, beer mugs, coffee mug with the Pomp Room security logo. We have some socks that I’m pretty stoked about. We have some flyers and some names of either national acts that really left the mark on there, or the local big ones, like the Cartwright Brothers and Wakefield and things like that.
We have the new hoodie. My hoodie has been falling apart for six months and I’m been holding out so I can buy a Pomp Room one. Some stickers, sunglasses, coozies of course, because whether there’s alcohol in it or not, people get thirsty! We have a magnet of a sign that used to hang up there that just said “No Foo Foo drinks. This is a bar, not a drink boutique. Thank you. Pomp Room.” I have always been entertained by that. Flask, bottle opener, beanies — the packages really vary. The $400 one is almost all the stuff. The $10 one gets you a rad postcard, and there are options in between. We do have it set up so there are some add-on items at the end. So if you want extra copy of the movie or you want to get a couple of things, some of those things are available as add-ons.
Hopefully people will dig it, because, Jesse and I, are not making any profit off it. We were kind of about that from day one, but we do want pay our crew. We do want to share this with as wide of an audience as we can. We do want to repay our individual savings accounts, which have been funding us for, uh, a long time. Our wives have been very patient.
Will you be showing this documentary in other locations, like West Mall or Cinemark, or is it just the Orpheum?
We’ve looked into some streaming options, but we don’t have a definite idea. We’ve looked into some other theaters. I’m trying to get it touring across the state. We’re obviously going to hit up every South Dakota film festival, and we have some other film festivals across the country. There’s actually one in the UK. I kind of just looked for the ones that I thought might think it was the coolest. We want to show it to as many people as possible!
Obviously Sioux Falls is where The Pomp Room was, so we certainly want to concentrate on making sure that everybody that wants to see it sees it in a theater. Still in my opinion, the best way to see a movie. We’ve got more stuff in the works. I just don’t have any definite details I can tell you now.
How long is the documentary?
It’s about an hour 35 or an hour 40. Right in there. We tried to keep it tight. Again, it would’ve been easy to get lost, because there are so many funny stories. One of the reasons we called it ”A Rock N Roll Bar Story” is we wanted it to have that charm. I think of when you’re sitting in a bar, maybe you don’t even know the person next to you and you start chatting. Pretty soon, you hear, “I remember a couple years ago at this place…” and they tell you a story that’s just amazing. You’re holding on your stool, laughing, or your jaw is in your shot of tequila.
We wanted to keep this story moving. It’s tough covering three generations of music basically. I think we’ve got it. We’ve got a real solid version of it that I think moves great. I think people are going to leave feeling like at the very least, they know what The Pomp Room was. So if somebody says they know more than it was just a sign with a trumpeter on it — at the best, people who either were there or weren’t will feel like they were there again for an hour and a half. That’s probably the nicest compliment anyone can give me on this movie.
Our narrator is Matt Pinfield. We’ve been sitting on that for a while, and we had contacted him pretty early in this process because Jesse knew his work very, very well. I heard his voice and thought, oh man, that is the voice. It’s gravelly but kind, which really kind of sums up the Pomp Room in a lot of ways. He was the perfect guy, the guy we always wanted. We are so stoked to have him be the narrator for this. His voice is just perfect. He may have even had a little fun while he was reading.
What do you hope that this documentary will convey to your viewers?
I hope it will convey the power of the family you kind of end up with, or the family you choose to be with, because that theme, early on, appears. It’s fascinating because any workplace, especially in the decent workplace, you kind of bond. I remember working at the Main Street Pub in Vermillion and loving the people I worked with. If I saw them, it wouldn’t be like we served in the army because that job wasn’t like combat, but the job was intense. It creates this sort of family-like atmosphere where when you see them 20 years from now, you just kind of open your arms and say, “Hey!” without even thinking about it.
I wanted to convey the power of family. I wanted to convey the power of music. That’s what brings people together. Then when you walk through the doors, there was no concern about politics or race or anything remotely controversial. It was just about the music. I have been a music fan since the first time hearing my mom playing “Mrs. Robinson” on our little turntable on the farm when I was like five. That’s the first time that it clicked with me. Then I became obsessive about it for the rest of my life. It’s a unifying force. Music brings people together. If you’re there to see a band and they blow your eyebrows off with power, you’re going to leave going, “Holy crap! Can you even hear anything? Me neither. That was amazing.”
I think music has great capability, and I hope that it still does in these really divided times, to somehow end up bringing people together because it’s got a magic to it. I don’t think I’ve ever personally seen that magic on better display than those shows I went to at the Pomp Room when I was a kid.
The 98-minute film is not rated, but it is recommended for ages 16 and over.
There will also be an after party at the Shrine following the film’s premiere that will feature live performance from 12 ½ Charlies and The Cartwright Brothers. The “After Pomp Party” will cost an additional $15 and is for ages 21 and over only. You can purchase tickets here: https://cinemafalls.square.site/?fbclid=IwAR1bfL2fUhFY3W46KMtfU8X54AMjNlIRh_F7i6XNA11-hZ4z_iL8CdStt-8