Hard Rock Cafe

Dallas, Texas

New Light at the Hard Rock Cafe in:
Professional Stained Glass Magazine, v.9, no.9

Artist Team Member: Leader & Visionary: ISAAC TIGRETT, NYC/India

Artist Team Member: Conductor & Technical Consultant: JEFF SMITH, Fort Davis, TX

Artist Team Member: Illustrator: BEN JAMES, Dallas and beyond...

Artist Team Member: Figure Artist: ELLEN SODERQUIST, Dallas

Artist Team Member: Painter: FRANK X TOLBERT 2, Houston

Stained Glass Fabrication: KEBRLE STUDIO, Dallas

Home of the Dallas Hard Rock's Stained Glass since 2010: The MEDDLESOME MOTH, Dallas

3.5' w by 19.0' h each

When HRC’s co-founder asked me to create the very first stained glass windows for a Hard Rock Cafe, it took me a while to realize he wanted pre-Victorian-style, canonized rock’n’roll stars – not contemporary ‘Jeff Smith’ stained glass. I struggled with this for a while, and then, in a stroke of creative brilliance, I quit.

Jeff Smith wrote the following article in 1989 for Professional Stained Glass Magazine. That was a long time ago, but it’s still an interesting peek at the volatile mix that can result when you dare to combine a head-strong restaurateur, the elusive world of rock’n’roll, and talented artistic egos. Plus an impossible deadline! . . . Jeff’s more recent updates and comments appear in brackets:


EDITORIAL NOTE [PSG MAGAZINE]: This project was discussed in Stained Glass Quarterly (Summer 1988), but we thought it merited a further look. The SGQ article focused on the work of the fabricator of the windows and inexplicably, yet thoroughly, omitted any reference or credit to the artist team that had actually designed the windows. The commission was, in fact, the combined effort of several talented artists working tirelessly with the owner under an almost impossible deadline. Here’s how they did it.

In mid-April 1986, after several meetings with HRC’s co-founder Isaac Tigrett, I was given a contract to execute three windows for the newest Hard Rock Cafe being planned for Dallas [as a renovation of an early 20th century Baptist Church on the corner of McKinney and Routh]. Frustrating as it was [especially at this early point in my career], I soon realized that Tigrett was really looking for a faithful, pre-Victorian-style depiction of canonized rock’n’roll stars [quite a departure from the portfolio I’d been showing him]. Finally, in mid-July, in a stroke of creative brilliance, I quit. . .

However, rather than walking away, I proposed that I meld my technical understanding of stained glass with the talents of local artists. Almost 14 months later, upon the installation of the third and final window [Jerry Lee Lewis], Tigrett was proud and ecstatic about what he and the extended Artist Team had accomplished [the very first Rock Star stained in a Hard Rock Cafe]. What follows is an account of the hectic period preceding that triumphant moment.

To get the project back on track, I recruited the talents of illustrator Ben James, figure artist Ellen Soderquist and painter Frank X. Tolbert 2. We met in Isaac and Maureen [formerly Ms. Ringo Starr] Tigrett’s opulent penthouse atop the historic Stoneleigh Hotel, surrounded by jaw-dropping rock & roll memorabilia [Pete Townsend’s smashed Stratocaster lay kindling-esque in one of the fireplaces. . . and the dining room was paved, floor-to-ceiling, with gold records. . . and Jimi’s left-handed, 1969 Flying V. . . and. . . and. . .]. There we held  brainstorming sessions and design presentations several times a week. At first the idea was to have each of the three artists do a study for the Elvis Window. One of their designs would then be chosen by Tigrett and me. When we all met to review their preliminary efforts, Isaac and I realized that the three concepts so strongly complemented each other that we wisely opted for a three-artist design team. [By this point Tigrett had designated Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis to flank the King. However, due to time constraints, the Elvis Window would be completed first, hopefully in time for the Grand Opening.]

As an illustrator, Ben James was ideally suited to not only flesh out Isaac’s vision, but to integrate everyone’s contributions into a cohesive whole. Our official figure artist, Ellen Soderquist, created larger-than-life, full figure portraits of the three rock stars that seem to breathe. Tolbert provided, among other intangibles, the much needed freshness that kept the design process from bogging down in rigidity. Two of his preliminary sketches were eventually displayed in the HRC near the three windows. 

With the unique design solutions from each artist as the starting point, ideas were massaged, blended and sometimes abandoned during a three month gestation and protracted labor that eventually led to the birth of the design for the Elvis Window. [Many of the threads woven into the stained glass were unspooled by Memorabilia Archivist, Steve Routhier from HRC’s extensive collections. Graceland Museum loaned us rare, unpublished photos of the King for the Elvis Window. Historically correct record label art was furnished by several of the recording companies.] In all, James did more than THIRTY one-inch-scale color renderings before the final Elvis design was approved by Tigrett [who then called down for bottles of Dom Pérignon to toast the hallowed occasion].

Earlier, at the official ground breaking, Dan Ackroyd had proclaimed this turn-of-the-century Federalist-style Baptist Church as the future “Supreme Court of Rock & Roll”.  The three stained glass windows would overlook an elevated, carved Judges’ Bench/Stage/Dining Area with a dignified King Elvis presiding from his throne. Musical-staff borders with hit song titles, record labels from first record contracts, star-studded cobalt skies and distinctive gold-pink glass details would all reappear in the more energetic Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis windows soon to follow.

[With the Elvis Window design now approved,] the design team moved on to the other two windows. I then forwarded copies of the Elvis rendering and its specifications to stained glass fabrication studios in Philadelphia, New York and Dallas that were capable of the extensive glass painting required for the Elvis and future windows. Based on pricing and proximity, Kebrle Studio of Dallas was chosen. John and Irmgard Kebrle along with assistant Greg Cortinas would face the seemingly impossible task of fabricating the Elvis Window by opening night, a mere 39 days away! Kebrle and I immediately flew to glass importer S.A. Bendheim in New York City to select the German, French, English and domestic mouthblown glasses that, along with accents from Kebrle’s private inventory, would make up Elvis’ glass palette.

While the crates of glass were en route to Dallas, Ben James enlarged our 1” scale, color rendering of the Elvis Window with an Artograph Projector. I assisted James with the fine-tuning of the full-scale cartoon which was then provided to Kebrle Studio. [All three windows were fabricated in three sections that were installed one atop of the other using saddle-bars.] [The glass shipment arrived a mere twelve days before the grand opening. By working late into most nights, Kebrle Studio and Soderquist were somehow miraculously able to cut, paint, fire, paint, re-fire, stain, re-fire, etch, lead, solder and caulk the Elvis Window in time.] 

[During the lead-up to the start of fabrication], Ellen Soderquist was busily [frantically?] finalizing her slightly larger-than-life-size Elvis portrait in pencil on Herculene drafting film. The clothed portions of Elvis would soon be interpreted by Soderquist and Kebrle using traditional glass painting techniques. The crucial detail of face and hands required a different approach. After literally cutting the face and hands from the original Herculene artwork, 120-line, halftone screens were made on clear film [remember, these were pre-digital days!]. Peregrine Press, a fine art printing house, then used a photo emulsion process to transfer the halftone dot pattern images onto a silk-screen, so that face and hands could then be printed onto 18” square blanks of 1/8” clear plate glass with black glass paint. Once fired onto the glass blanks, this yielded a faithful transfer of Ellen’s Elvis portrait onto glass, but the depth and detail of the original were lacking. The lost detail was recovered with two additional glass-paintings/firings by Soderquist and Kebrle. [Soderquist also added painted shading and definition to the gold lamé suit.] Later, for Soderquist’s portrait of Jerry Lee Lewis, a silver-stain wash and another firing were required to achieve his wild, yellow-blond hair.

[ASIDE: Sadly, it must be reported at this point that John Kebrle displayed a deeply engrained, unabashed male-chauvinism whenever he had dealings with Ellen Soderquist. After several unfortunate incidents at Kebrle Studio, it was only Tigrett’s firm intercession that allowed Ellen to complete work on her painted glass portraits at John’s studio. As a final insult, once the Elvis Window was installed, and after the Grand Opening, unbeknownst to anyone on the Artist Team, John Kebrle removed the top sections of the Elvis Window containing Elvis’ portrait and took them back to his studio. There he disassembled the sections, removed the glass containing Soderquist’s painstakingly rendered portrait and replaced it with his own attempt at portraiture! This was not discovered until Ellen’s next visit to the HRC where she immediately recognized what amounted to fine art theft. As with figures seen in his other church windows, Kebrle’s painted Elvis is more or less passable as “traditional stained glass painting”, but doesn’t begin to approach the beauty and subtlety captured in Soderquist’s portrait of Elvis.]

After several attempts at etching the “black-flashed-on-clear” mouthblown glass (planned for all three windows to create graphic detail), the flashed layer of black proved too thick to produce fine detail. Kebrle solved the problem by etching away entire areas where detail was needed using hydrofluoric acid, and then painting the detail in with black glass paint (as can be seen in the keys of Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano).

Every single piece of glass in each window section had to be painted and fired at least twice. [Firing evaporates volatile carriers in the paint and permanently fuses the pigment into the glass.] Kebrle began with direct “trace” painting to apply linear detail with black glass paint and trace brushes. The trace detail can be seen in the musical staff borders, lettering, guitar detailing, record labels, Elvis’ crown, etc. The painted pieces of glass were then fired in Kebrle’s hand-built, gas-fired flash-kiln with a sliding, 2×3 foot shelf-loader. Next came the “matte painting”. All the pieces of glass were covered with an even wash of black paint (the “matte”) and jigsawed back together on a Light Easel (a tiltable, clear panel of glass supported in an adjustable frame). With the Light Easel in its horizontal position, the pieces of glass were affixed to the easel’s glass panel with drops of glazer’s wax. The “waxed-up” section could then be tilted to a near vertical position, so that backlighting could reveal detail as the matte paint was removed. Using a variety of highlighting brushes, styli, stick “lights” plus a mahl stick to steady his hand, Kebrle [and often Soderquist] methodically and selectively removed the matte to create shading, highlighting, texture and depth. Kebrle also used an airbrush to further enhance depth and shadow (i.e., the drapery effect on Elvis’ gold lame suit). [Similarly, Soderquist added detail and shading to the clothing to more closely reflect her original portrait.] Each piece of glass had to then be fired once again. Some of the glass required silver stain to add yellow to yellow-orange highlights and detail, and, of course an additional firing in the kiln.

As soon as Kebrle finished painting one section, he would begin on the next while his assistant, Greg Cortenes, began leading the freshly painted and fired section. In some areas (i.e., Jerry Lee Lewis’ tattersall suit and the storm clouds over his head) “plating” with a second layer of glass behind the first was necessary to achieve a precise color density or shade. After leading, soldering, cementing [caulking] and cleaning each section, Greg shaped and soldered galvanized steel flat-bar to the back of the section for reinforcement.

While it might seem that the process went smoothly by the above description, the reality was an increasingly maddening rush toward opening night [November 6, 1986]. At 7AM on the morning of the Grand Opening, I called Kebrle to confirm the 9AM start time for installing the Elvis Window. Kebrle told me that Cortinas was still soldering the top of the Elvis Window, but more importantly, Kebrle told me he was dissatisfied with the stained glass and refused to install Elvis regardless. I immediately sped to Kebrle Studio and by 10AM we had agreed to install the window on the condition that Kebrle could (and later did) remove the window for [then unspecified] “improvements”. [See the “Aside” above for a clue as to Kebrle’s theatrics and true motive.]

The installation was orchestrated from a narrow-profile scaffolding system into existing window framing with an exterior protective glazing of 1/4” clear Lexan. The installation was a straightforward process using butyl foam glazing tape with aluminum T-bars between stacked stained glass sections. As we gathered up tools and equipment, the “Judges’ Bench”/stage at Elvis’ feet was bathed in the glow from the stained glass, while the audio soundcheck fittingly blared “That’s Alright Mama”. [as the Stained Glass Quarterly article put it: “John Kebrle and Greg Cortinas finished the installation about 6PM, just in time to run home, clean up, and make it back to the HRC to see the window publicly unveiled at 8PM. Searchlights careened wildly through the evening sky and, every stretch limo in the state clogged the barricaded street in front of the Hard Rock Cafe as the 2,000 or so invited guests gathered for the opening festivities… Paul Schafer’s Late Night Band was playing…  an electrifying Chuck Berry headlined the evening.” . . . While Dan Ackroyd was dedicating the Supreme Court of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a curtain fell at the back of the stage unveiling a stained glass King presiding brightly from his throne.]

Whew! . . . Now to repeat the process, maybe a little more leisurely, for the Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis Windows! Onward!

–the preceding article by Jeff Smith appeared in the September 1989 issue of Professional Stained Glass Magazine [updates and additions in brackets].


[New Chapter: On July 15, 2009, after a lively 23 year run, Dallas’ Hard Rock Cafe on McKinney at Routh closed its doors. Before the stately Supreme Court of Rock & Roll was razed, its stained glass along with memorabilia and furnishings were removed. Shortly thereafter, Dallas restauranteur, Shannon Wynn rescued the three windows at auction. The stained glass had been roughly mishandled, so Wynn tasked Kittrell Riffkind Glass Studio with the extensive restoration – and they did an amazing job. In 2010 Wynn integrated the stained glass into his latest venture, The Meddlesome Moth Gastropub, where the Hard Rock Cafe International’s very first Rock & Roll Windows can still be seen. They have been carefully backlit in rich hardwood frames that lean out over the main dining area of the Moth. Elvis, Chuck and Jerry Lee once again are holding court over an upscale gathering spot in Big D. The Moth’s menu features share plates, mussels, meat pies, fish & chips and lots of other unique options in addition to 40 craft beers on tap, live ales, and more than 80 bottled beers. Wines and signature cocktails too.]

[But wait, there’re more. . . A year or so after the installation in Dallas of the first “rock’n’roll stained glass” in any HRC, a friend of Ben James happened to mention seeing an “Elvis Window” at the recently opened HRC in Cancun. Isaac Tigrett had talked about keeping the team together and doing more rock star windows at future HRCs, so you can imagine Ben’s surprise. Ben’s friend showed  him a photo of herself with a girlfriend in front of a duplicate of our Elvis Window in Cancun, Ben’s jaw dropped! Here was an unauthorized copy of the Elvis Window we had all worked so hard on. Ben did a little poking around and discovered that John Kebrle had replicated the design without permission from the Artist Team that designed it and owned its copyright. (Remember, Kebrle didn’t become involved until after the design process was finished.)  As a professional illustrator, Ben had routinely copyrighted our designs in the transmittals that accompanied their handoff to Kebrle Studio. 

Amazingly, the one-time president of the Stained Glass Association of America, AND, the current chair of the SGAA’s ETHICS COMMITTEE [!?!], John Kebrle had quietly made a knockoff of our design in violation of Ben’s/our copyright. None of us had been contacted. The quality of the doppelgänger suffered without Soderquist’s involvement with the portraiture. Later, more and more “Elvis sightings” were reported. Chuck and Jerry Lee too. The Elvis Window in Orlando, for example, portrays a sinister-looking Elvis (sorta) look-alike in a gold-lamé suit that appears to have gotten the brown acid. Kebrle’s ripoffs turned up in HRCs in Orlando, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Beijing, Acapulco, several locations in Japan and . . . who really knows? (kebrelestainedglass.com boasts of stained glass at a whopping 43 HRC locations).

A lawsuit brought by James, Soderquist and Tolbert was finally resolved with the HRC agreeing to cease and desist further misappropriation of our designs without our express permission. Further the HRC agreed to install brass plaques beneath every forged window acknowledging the extended design team. Not sure if anybody ever verified the plaques being added. There also may have been a monetary payment as well. As they were being bamboozled by Kebrle, the HRC was apparently unaware of the copyright infringements.]

Let’s End This on a Lighter Note: ONE-ON-ONE WITH CHUCK

I’ll never forget my one-on-one visit with Chuck Berry at the HRC. He was the featured guest at the Grand Opening Night Gala. As lead artist/coordinator for the making of the Hard Rock’s Elvis, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis stained glass windows, I’d earned a coveted invite to the HRC’s VIP “Cheese Club” upstairs for a seated dinner before the festivities officially began. As it turned out, I was seated next to Chuck’s gorgeous daughter, Ingrid. After dinner concluded, we all exited back into the crush of revelers. The house was already rockin’ –  everyone was partying hardy – believe me!

During the transformation of this old church into the HRC, I’d discovered a hidden “nook” where I now escaped for some calm. . . The next thing I knew HRC founder, impresario, and visionary, Isaac Tigrett, opened the secret door to “my” nook, telling Chuck he could tune and warm up there. Nobody asked me to leave, so I spent the next 20 or 30 minutes listening to Chuck play. We chatted a little about growing up in Missouri and Arkansas. Chuck was still kinda pissed at the way he’d been treated by the taxman, the law and the record companies, but we got along just fine. Then, before I knew it, a manager stuck his head in and led Chuck offstage where he waited until being introduced by Dan Ackroyd and proceeding to blow the top off the place. Such a night! Onward.

PHOTOS: Jeff Smith/Architectural Stained Glass, Inc. ©1986, 1987, 2021.

Materials: European mouthblown glass, lead, solder w/ painting & etching.