Dance Hall Days
"Businesses like mine never make it," reckons Fitzgerald's owner and namesake Sara Fitzgerald. "Two banks told me that, and both of them are gone."
The building is a former Polish women's league dance and meeting hall that opened in 1908, when the Heights was still the outskirts of Houston. "The women had their husbands build it on stilts because of the flooding," notes Fitzgerald. Elvis played there, and by the early '70s, the sizable Polish community had outgrown it and moved on to a bigger building off Cooper Road. A woman bought it with the idea of turning it into a supper club, an idea that tanked because the surrounding neighborhood was so sketchy no one showed up. "It got really run-down after that," Fitzgerald says.
Fitzgerald, a former realtor who grew up in Pearland, first encountered the building in 1977, showing it to a client who wanted to tear it down; she took a liking to the place and decided to buy it herself. She had been buying, restoring and selling houses for a while, and that was the original plan for her latest (and biggest) purchase.
"The job was a little bit bigger than a house," she says. "I thought I'd open up a little bar inside and make the money to fix it and earn my way out of it."
Not long after that, Townes Van Zandt buddy Mickey White and future Old Quarter owner Wrecks Bell came into the bar and asked Fitzgerald if they could use the upstairs area, which had a stage but was otherwise vacant, to put on a Lightnin' Hopkins show. They paid the legendary Houston bluesman $500, and the place was packed.
"I sold beer out of trash cans. We made change out of a cigar box," remembers Fitzgerald. "I saw the building come alive and thought, 'Man, that looks like fun.' Wrecks still has the poster from that show up at the Old Quarter in Galveston."
Since then, Fitzgerald has witnessed every sort of human behavior under the sun. She's seen vegetarians doing cocaine, Buddhists with gun collections and a SWAT team raid on a NORML rally that yielded, she figures, around six joints total. She got HPD, who used to raid Fitz's indiscriminately and arrest around 25 random people for public intoxication, off her back by telling them she was then-mayor Kathy Whitmire's girlfriend. She's counted out money to Stevie Ray Vaughan, who lived in one of the houses behind the club for a spell, as a woman gave him a blow job, and watched an eccentric employee pay the Toadies without a stitch of clothing on. She saw Houston Post music critic Bob Claypool keel over from a heart attack at a Rodney Crowell show, and his Chronicle counterpart Marty Racine meet and court his future wife, one of her happy-hour bartenders. Other employees left the nest to start bars of their own: Cecil's, the Bon Ton Room, Club Hey Hey.
"I should get a PhD," figures Fitzgerald. "I have a friend that has one in psychology that comes and asks me questions. I say it's because I've been in the bar business so long. People fascinate the shit out of me."
Fitzgerald has lost her shirt a few times, including the $20,000 she sank into booking one of her heroes, Tina Turner, before her Private Dancer comeback: "She wasn't big then." The most she's ever lost on a show, Fitzgerald reckons, is "twice as much as my first house cost." (She doesn't say how much that is.) Bootsy Collins demanded a forklift to load his gear in, and skipped out with Fitzgerald's $10,000 without playing a note. She stopped booking rap after KRS-One chased her around the office with a broom, demanding an extra $500 to cover his rented Escalade. She's spent a small fortune on repairing the damage inflicted on the building; her cousin Tobin's full-time job is to "keep it working."
"Bands have done some shit, but they're not as bad as the customers," says Fitzgerald. "The men's room takes the most abuse. I've had 'em ripping the urinals off the walls and water squirt everywhere. They've punched the mirror out so many times we'll go months without one. People flush shit down the toilet you wouldn't believe: dresses, panties, all kinds of crap."
She's won a few, too. Fitzgerald stood up to James Brown and demanded the Godfather of Soul pay her the $800 he had charged to the club at the Hyatt Regency downtown. He did minutes before IRS agents raided the club and confiscated the rest of Brown's money for nonpayment of taxes. When Bad Brains played the club, they were so insufferable an employee decided to serve them a delicacy Fitzgerald calls "Texas Nachos."
"He took some tortilla chips and put dog food and cheese on 'em," she says. "They said, 'We really liked that. Can we have some more?' So we had to go to the store and get another can of Alpo."
As tentacles of corporate octopi like LiveNation continue ensnaring Houston's live-music market, even down to the club level, Fitzgerald says she survives by booking what the bigger boys either won't touch or haven't heard of yet. "I'm a bottom feeder," she smiles. "I make money off shit nobody wants."
However, one of her main methods of discovering new talent is controversial, to say the least. Local bands new to Fitzgerald's must first play its monthly "Break Out Band Night," which means, among other things, they have to pay $50 up-front to get on the bill. Naturally, this rankles many musicians, who see the old "pay-to-play" bugaboo, but Fitzgerald defends it as a necessary part of doing business.
First of all, she says, the money helps ensure the band shows up at all. Second, if they're unable to draw 25 people at which point Fitzgerald says they get their "deposit" back the money goes to cover the cost of PA rental and sound engineer. Finally, Fitzgerald says some budding bands are so clueless the money basically buys them a few lessons in Rock 101. Both Clint Black and Blue October began rising through the ranks this way, she notes.
"Some bands don't even know how to set their own gear up," Fitzgerald says. "In that case, you get consulting for $50, we show you how to set up a professional stage."
Sitting in the cluttered office she shares with booking agent Frances Tofte, in front of a calendar with about a dozen employee birthdays marked in red, she figures she's got more than enough material for a book if only she'd written it all down.
"I wish I had kept a diary, but I never thought I'd stay," Fitzgerald admits. "That's been my whole thing all these years, was 'I'll just do this a little while longer.'"
And what about now?
"I still think that every year, when I have to renew my liquor license."
Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, 713-862-3838, celebrates its 30th anniversary with Shake Russell on Thursday, Spoonfed Tribe on Friday and Brave Combo on Saturday.
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