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From blues rock to punk, Fitzgerald's plays what it must to survive

There was never any question Sara Fitzgerald would make it.
Even though some 25 years ago a local bank wouldn't lend her money to buy her first home -- lending to single women was risky -- and even though her bosses at Xerox, where she was the first woman in the sales department, kept her managerial aspirations cool by forcing her to continue taking "enrichment" courses, Fitzgerald has succeeded. For the past 22 years she has been running one of Houston's most popular rock and roll clubs. Fitzgerald's, in fact, has outlasted most of the banks in the area. Talk about poetic justice.

Sara Fitzgerald grew up in Pearland. Her high school graduated about 90 kids back in 1967, the year she was voted Miss Pearland High. Friends still joke that her winning photo hangs in the post office.

After earning a degree in finance from the University of Houston, Fitzgerald worked for the copy company full-time and for a real estate agency on weekends. And it was then that she stumbled onto the Old Polish Hall at 2706 White Oak, the building that was soon to bear her name.

Built at the turn of the century, and used by Houston's Polish community for dances and meetings, the wooden structure, which still resembles a squashed Amish barn, appeared to be a financial and emotional sinkhole. Bad plumbing. Hazardous electricity. No air-conditioning. But what to the regular eye looked like hell looked like possibility to Sara Fitzgerald. Being freshly married or perhaps being able to own commercial property as a woman may have affected her viewpoint and, ultimately, her decision to leave the rat race and concentrate on club-running full-time. Whatever it was, Fitzgerald was hooked.

She'd never run a club before. She thought yokels might enjoy actual performers there, so seven months after she took control of the 10,000-square-foot property, she hosted her first Fitzgerald's show, "a folksy thing by some local act," in 1977.

It wasn't until bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins and his backup band asked Fitzgerald if they could promote and put on their own show on the club's upstairs stage that the Gods of Club Business began shining. No one had used the upstairs stage before. It was rickety. The sound quality wasn't great. The second floor, like downstairs, had no air-conditioning. And there was no bar. For the show, which brought about 300 people through the door, Fitzgerald and her crew loaded and lugged garbage cans full of ice and beer up and down all night. A huge bar (which in club argot means "a large profit from liquor sales") and a big door ("a large profit from ticket sales") made Fitzgerald curious. If Hopkins could pull this off, she thought, then so could I.

By the next year, 1979, Fitzgerald was booking her own acts. To lure University of Texas alums, she drew performers from Austin, acts such as guitar god Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose names the young alumni would recognize on the marquee. The tactic worked. Soon Fitzgerald's was part of a Texas circuit for bluesy rock and roll.

"Oh, god, I remember Stevie Vaughan," says Fitzgerald, sitting one afternoon at a table by the first-floor stage. "He used to claim he could tell whether or not you put the ice in before you put the liquor in or if you put the ice in after, because he said when you put the ice in after, you bruised the liquor. So we blindfolded him one night after a show, and he sat at the bar right there," she says, pointing a finger over her fluffy, sandy-blond hair, "and we just sat there all night, and he was saying, 'This one's this,' or 'This one's that,' ya know..."

Did he really know?
"No," Fitzgerald says, rolling her eyes and laughing. "But we were all so fucked up, who could tell?"

What has helped Fitzgerald's mine and retain premier talent is... well, Fitzgerald's.

"The upstairs is the best room in all of Texas," says Linda Waring, former drummer of Miss Molly and the Passions, who has performed in venues across the country. "It's all wood. It has the best acoustics. It has warmth. And, for me, the way my drums sounded there ... they just don't make 'em like that anymore."

The building is only part of why Fitzgerald's shows and performances have been so endearing to so many people. The people also matter. A sound man like Jim Capfer, a Local 51 worker who now works with Pace and Society for the Performing Arts, saved at least one Fitzgerald's show with diplomacy. When X played, lead singer Exene Cervenkova complained during sound check that the system was too noisy, too bright. The sound was bouncing all over the place, she said. "I told her, 'Wait until tonight,' " Capfer says. " 'When the people come in, their bodies, it'll warm up the sound.' " Sure enough, he was right. And a lighting woman like Kris Phelps, who has been a full-time employee of Fitzgerald's since 1983, can augment a performance with the flick of a switch. "It was after Stevie Ray's band had performed for, like, three hours," says Phelps, "when Stevie just sat down at the corner of the stage and played 'Lenny' all by himself. I was working. I just put a follow spot on him the whole time. Just this little pool of light and Stevie sitting there by himself with his guitar. It was great."

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