The Houston and Austin nightlife industry is mourning the loss of one of their own.
Alex Akers, the well-liked general manager with popular Midtown dance club Barbarella, located at 2402 San Jacinto St., passed away suddenly last week. He leaves behind a young daughter, Auden.
Due to coronavirus restrictions keeping the doors closed at Barbarella, staff at the beloved Midtown nightspot, as well as family, friends, and fans are invited to celebrate his life this weekend with pop-ups at White Oak Music Hall sister bar, Raven Tower, (310 North St.), Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
Expect themes familiar to regulars: Thursday will be '90s Night, Friday will be New Noise (alternative dance, electronic), and Saturday will be '80s Night. All proceeds will go to support Akers' family. Twin Shadow's George Lewis Jr. will play guest DJ on Saturday night; shows start at 9 p.m.
Akers was the frontman of the Houston spin-off of the popular Austin dance club that offered cheap cover, cheap drinks, a no-fuss ambiance, and a light-up dance floor. It has been known as the best place to groove in Midtown and joined the pantheon of rare nightlife spots where patrons can simply be themselves.
Barbarella followed a successful formula to appeal to different tastes, playing music themes throughout the week, including emo and LGBTQ-friendly nights, as well as unique one-offs with the best DJ talent in the city and beyond.
“We are a dance dive bar and we’re a dance club for those who don’t like dance clubs," Barbarella co-founder, Harvey Graham, tells CultureMap from Las Vegas, home to one of his other clubs. "Most dance clubs are all about bottle service and superficial and we’re like a chef-owned restaurant — we’re owned by DJs and our first concern is our love of music. It’s finding good DJs and playing good music, and everything else comes after that.”
Akers helped start the club in 2013 as a partner in the Houston venture with owners of the Austin spot, after working his way up the ranks at the ownership group's first club, Swan Dive, located on the Red River-6th Street corridor and later, the Austin Barbarella, which continues on.
“We really liked people like Alex who are super friendly and good with people," Graham says. "He worked really hard and when we decided to expand to Houston, he said he had some money and would like to become a partner in it. We liked to reward people from within and who liked the concept. So we brought him on board and he helped me start it up.”
Akers is remembered by those who knew him for being a genuinely kind soul in an often unforgivable business replete with oversized egos, very late nights, and a narrow bottom line with little margin for error.
"I haven’t had a better experience working anywhere else which is why I’ve been there for seven years," Barbarella resident DJ and Houston musician Brandon Duhon tells CultureMap. "He also loved his mom a lot and she would sometimes come and hang out at the club — I thought it was really sweet that he was in the venue doing all this business, but in the midst of all that, they would still spend time together. I really wish that this didn’t happen because he was a positive influence in this world, and for sure a positive influence in the Houston scene."
Others remembered the Barbarella GM for taking the time for others, including feeding the homeless population around the venue and offering them odd jobs to put money in their pockets.
“He was always nice, honest, generous, and considerate," Duhon says. "That is a rarity with people, but it’s even more of a rarity with people who are running nightlife businesses.”
“He had boyish enthusiasm, a young soul, carefree, always so much fun to be around," Graham adds. “He was the face of the club. To the Barbarella family, it’s a huge loss and it’s going to be super weird doing it without him.”
Like bars across the country, COVID effectively shuttered the doors at the dance venue leaving many without work. It recently had a lifeline thrown by White Oak Music Hall co-owner Jagi Katial, who invited Barbarella to host a series of outdoor pop-up events at the neighboring venue, Raven Tower, following easing of restrictions for bars.
For those involved, it was a way to get staff back to work and get people dancing again, but it was also the meeting of two like-minded local music spots with a lot of mutual respect for each other.
“There’s a do-it-yourself element that’s apparent at White Oak but it comes across visually and aesthetically at Barb’s," says Katial. "White Oak is glossy and brand-new looking but it's definitely a DIY project. Alex saw that, he valued that, and I valued that about Barbs. There’s definitely a similarity in music but more than anything, there was an overlapping philosophy on how we operated organizations.”
There is no word how Akers' death will affect Barbarella in Houston moving forward. For now, Akers' love of music will be at the forefront this weekend during the Barbarella shows. While all three pop-up nights will raise proceeds for Akers' family, Barbarella staff, friends, and loved ones are invited to attend the Friday night event to raise a toast and share memories.
“I’d like people to come out a celebrate Alex’s life," Katial says. "If you knew or didn’t know Alex, if you went to Barbs or didn’t, just come out and enjoy one of those nights.”