Somewhere between the truly DIY music spaces in the city (backyards, garages) and the mighty Cain’s Ballroom, there lies the legendary Tulsa dive bar/music venue. Mercury Lounge. Soundpony. Colony. If you want a feel for the true grit of the city, get to know these spots. (For more, check out our guide to The Tulsa Sound.) They may not look like much from the street, but walk inside on a Monday night and see if you don’t hear some of the most raw, real, thrilling music in the region, often from bands that are on their way to blowing up.
Add Whittier Bar to that list. When Nick Flores took over the keys to the longtime Kendall Whittier haunt “Daddy Dee’s Beehive Lounge” in late 2019, he had a decade of tending bar at the Soundpony under his belt and way more than that amount of time touring the country with groups like John Moreland & the Black Gold Band and Lizard Police. After an incendiary first three months that included appearances from the likes of Mannequin Pussy (named to Pitchfork’s Best New Music list the same week they played the Whittier), the pandemic shut everything down. For Flores, it was an opportunity to get super intentional about what he wanted the spot to be. These days, Whittier Bar sports some of the most diverse music listings of any venue in Tulsa, and you can see most bands for $5-$10.
Sitting next to the pinball machines, under the stamped tin ceiling and the busted gaze of Gertrude (more on her later), we talked with Flores about the vibe of the place, the DIY ethic of the neighborhood and what it’s like to steward an old bar into a new life as a music destination.
Pinball machines in Whittier Bar.
Do you have a history with this place? How does it feel to be the owner now?
NF: When I was 18 we used to play shows across the street at The Monolith, which was over by Perez Video, and we would come over here and hang out. So it's kind of funny to go from being an 18- to 21-year-old kid, playing shows in a true DIY space with just four walls and some speakers, that had its own scene, to now owning a place in the same neighborhood and putting on some similar shows. That's definitely a full circle thing.
Me and my older brother were renting a place over here and we were going to open a restaurant. Josh Gifford from the Soundpony asked me if I would like to open a bar instead. So in 2019 we took over the Whittier Bar, which was already established. Instead of building something out, we had a turnkey business to just walk into. And for me it was a perfect situation. My brother's the chef side of the business [The Whit Catering + Food Truck, run by Jason Flores and often parked outside the bar on show nights] and we have 50/50 ownership. Running a bar and running a restaurant are almost the same thing, they just deal with different products. I don’t know how to run a restaurant; my brother knows how to read that side of things. But I know how to run a bar and cultivate a culture in a bar, so it was pretty awesome to just step into something I was comfortable with.
Nick Flores (l). Gertrude and "Tony" (r)
What kind of culture’s growing over here?
NF: One thing that really shaped the bar was that we had to shut down three months after we'd opened; we barely had any bank roll, and we just hung on. When we were shut down we took everything off the walls, we painted it, we hung the speakers up. We added the stage. We put a foundation in to support what we're doing now. We wanted to be not just a bar, but a venue. When we were starting to book again, that foundation allowed us to be like, you know, we're offering something. We also started charging covers for shows. That really has allowed us to bring in the better bands because I can say to booking agents, we're gonna provide this, bring your talent to this. I'm fairly new at booking; I've always done the DIY stuff, but the wider, more professional world is fairly new to me. So we're learning. On the managerial booking side, it's me and my bar manager [Tony Delesdernier]. So it's two people, you know, and we have a sound guy who also is a bartender. That's kind of the vibe at Whittier: everybody that works here helps out, because they want to see this place grow.
We definitely have a DIY/artist culture. I definitely want artistic people in here, people that are open-minded, people that want to have a conversation, people that are about a community. That's what we want to cultivate here too: our own community.
So how does what you’re doing at Whittier Bar connect with the wider neighborhood?
NF: Jess Hermann, who's the general manager of Heirloom, used to be my roommate before I got married. I've known her since I was 18. Ziegler's does posters for us. I've known Chuck Foxen of Circle Cinema through cycling forever. My brother [Clay Flores] used to work in film, so he knew Charles Ellsworth and Jeremy Charles of Firethief and all those guys. My bar manager’s brother and sister-in-law own Whitty Books. And then my wife works at Flash Flood Print Studio. I mean, it's just tied in. It's a little community. Oh yeah: and I was in a band with Dustin [Cleveland, of Ritual Electric]. So it kind of makes sense that I'm over here. I went to OSU and got an entrepreneurship degree and while going to school I'm like, I want to own something. It turns out it's a bar, and it's perfect. But the entire time I was thinking, I need to get over into Kendall Whittier. This was five years ago; I was like, that's the next area that's going to blow up. It's been six years since then and it's just growing and growing. I think we're probably still a couple of years away, but you know, we're here building something in Kendall Whittier. So it's pretty cool.
You’ve got shows going on here throughout the week—and they’re full. How do you explain that?
NF: We got hit with Delta and took a nose dive, but we steadied and now we're coming back up and that’s always great to see. One thing about Kendall Whittier: we're kind of on an island out here at the moment. The IDL is not that far, but it's just far enough. This is a destination place. We have to give people a reason to come out here, so that's what we're doing. You can charge a cover here, you know, because people are driving here for a reason, which is to see the event that's happening.
Toombz performing at Whittier Bar.
You can come watch us spin vintage country vinyl on a Sunday. And then the next day, the same crowd is here to see the death metal show. And they come back for karaoke and comedy nights. People are into a lot of stuff! It’s easy to expand if you're hanging out in a place like this. In a social Crock-Pot, you know, people are going to rub off on you and stuff that maybe you never really would've listened to, you start to appreciate. It’s like when people from Cain’s come through to Soundpony after a country show or something. They walk through the door and see these four very sweaty, stinky dudes playing, but they're going all out, you know, and it's an experience. They're not going to go home and, like, put it on Spotify, but hey, that band's coming back and I remember it being crazy and I'm going to go see that. People give it a shot. They go, I wouldn't listen to that every day, but live? That was awesome. I'm going to go see that again.
I've been in a touring band since I was 16 or 17, went through the DIY punk scene and then some of the Americana or rock and roll scene, and then with Lizard Police. I made a lot of connections with people from Philly or from San Francisco, you know, all over. Once you start getting on the road a lot, you realize that everybody kind of knows everybody. And your network gets real tight. Once we decided to start putting together shows here, I used my connections to bring in the stuff that I would like to bring in, which is honestly anything that's good. Stuff like this [gestures to speakers playing dark, crunchy, gauzy music] has been really interesting to me lately—kind of like New Goth, industrial stuff. A couple of weeks ago we had two great bands come through—Lunacy and Mutant—and when they were playing I was like, this is one of the top three shows that I've had here so far. We haven't done a lot of hip hop shows, but the one that's coming in on Saturday is killer. That one was booked from Codak Smith, who is at Ritual Electric over here. It's his wedding party! He curated the show and wanted to do it here. To me, that's beautiful.
Maybe to make a night of it, people go to a movie at Circle, then come over here to have a drink and hear a band. And there’s a food truck!
NF: Exactly. We’re hoping for The Whit truck to be permanent here. Pollos Asados [in the parking lot out back] is basically out there 24/7/365 right now. But yes, eventually it will be.
Daikaiju (l), Black Magnet (r)
What’s the craziest show you’ve ever had here?
The craziest one was when we had Death Before Dishonor—they're Boston hardcore legends. First song, somebody got hip tossed and went straight through a table, snapped it in half. Nobody was hurt, but it was definitely like, all right, here we go. Tony and I stood in front of the pinball machines and just seriously held on to keep people from flying through. But it was a great show. I was like, man, this is going to be crazy, I don't know if we can do it here, but we're going to try. I've been surprised at what we've been able to put on here. It was a Monday night and we were at capacity—on a Monday. With a $15 ticket, you know? And I'm like, okay, this works.
So I’m looking at these giant letters over the bar and a kind of haunted mannequin/presiding spirit up in the corner. What’s going on up here?
NF: A lot of people ask about the SCUM sign. That actually came from Clean Hands. It was going to go in the bin and I decided to save it and put it up there. It's definitely a talking piece. It also has Kendall Whittier ties; it was in Flash Flood’s building when they were first around. So it's not just four letters that say SCUM; there’s something behind it.
It has community ties.
NF: Yeah. And then the lady up there, her name's Gertrude, and she came from the Tulsa Girls Art School over there. She was a finals project and she also was going to the trash. For us, she's the patron saint of Whittier Bar. She's obviously very odd, you know ... when people walk in, sometimes they see her and they’re like, is that … what is that? It's kind of weird. But she's awesome. She'll stick around a long time.
I feel the heritage of Soundpony in this place.
NF: It definitely has the DIY aspect of that. I mean, I spent 10 years there. And Josh has been a good mentor to me through all of this.
The infamous SCUM sign from Clean Hands hanging above the bar at Whittier Bar.
How is the support among venues in Tulsa? Like, are you all in touch with each other?
NF: Definitely. Somebody I've worked a lot with recently is Bobby Dean Orcutt from Mercury Lounge. We’ve been talking a lot and kind of banded together and bonded—it’s definitely a sister bar of ours. We send stuff their way, and if they are overbooked or something doesn't fit, they send it our way. And also Starlite—Tony used to work over there, Rob and Lynn Robertson [the Starlite’s proprietors] used to work next to me when I was at Soundpony. There's just like a family there. I found out that both bars even have the same anniversary.
During the pandemic, there was a lot of communication between bars that were like-minded like, Hey man, how are you doing? How are you doing it? What can I do to help you? When it first started, everybody was fighting for their lives. And then you're like, okay, I know how to exist. With the next wave coming, I can take it and kind of help people, you know?
This is the first thing I've ever owned and run. On November 1, 2019, I had the keys, I opened the door, we had a meeting and I'm like, thanks for working here. I hope you guys still work here tomorrow. And we just had our second anniversary, you know? We're not losing money and we're not making a ton, but we keep trucking along. And I think in a couple of years we'll be in a very good space.
If you go
2405 E. Admiral Blvd.
Myka 9 / Ellay Khule with Earl Hazard / DJ Capital A / Memphis Jones
November 13, 9pm
Unwed Sailor / We Make Shapes
November 15, 9pm