Houston Music

Sara Fitzgerald Speaks: "It Was Like a Black Box Man Cave in Here"

With all the uproar surrounding Fitzgerald's this week, it’s only fitting to hear from the owner herself. Sara Fitzgerald is no stranger to the ups and downs of the music business. At the helm of the historic Heights venue since 1978, Fitzgerald has witnessed every trend in the Houston music scene since before many of her patrons were even born.

Earlier this week, months of alleged mismanagement at the club came to a head with the infamous “farewell party” that left toilet paper strewn all over the club and graffiti scrawled on one of the stages. With those tenants now gone, Fitzgerald’s will go on under its owner’s leadership — at least at the beginning, she promises.

"I’m gonna run it myself for a while,” she told the Houston Press over the phone Thursday. “Because I want to get it on point. I’m gonna get my own staff and stuff like that. There’s management and there’s booking, and those are two different things. I want to run the building and all that, because I want a foot in the presentation there.”

That foot has walked the building and its surrounding neighborhood through pre-gentrification to the present day. No other one person knows the club better than she. She understands that Fitzgerald's needs to be a part of the Heights community at large, and that's exactly what she plans to do.

"I talked to a carpenter today; we’re redoing the patio outside,” Fitzgerald says. “We’re gonna make it to where there’s a food truck out there; you know, there’s some outdoor stuff. That whole patio is so uninviting. We’re softening it up and making it more airy again. Make it [a] more lounge-y area where people can come in and hang out. We want it to be more neighborhood-friendly — outdoor bar, you know?

“This is actually nice for me; I usually never get to do this kind of thing,” she continues. “I’ve always had to work within a schedule, and now I have some time to really do it right and get it done. It’s exciting. So, now, I’ve got a bunch of different trades people in here to get it done.”

She laughs at some of the changes she envisions.

”It will be more girl-friendly [laughs], you know?” Fitzgerald says. “It was like a black box man cave in here. It was bros before hos, if you know what I mean.”

Although she says “we won’t be totally closed,” the next few weeks should be an interesting, and busy, time for the club. Fitzgerald says her crew will be cleaning, painting and fixing up the patio. She should be meeting with the club’s booking agent today to decide what to do about all the shows that had already been booked; some may have to move, at least at first. Fitzgerald also has to get her liquor license reinstated — “which takes some time, as you know,” she says. “Government moves slowly.”

"Without knowing exactly when that is going to happen, it’s hard to say exactly when I can reopen,” explains Fitzgerald. “I can be open; I just don’t have any liquor, and so…shows we may do, we may give something away. Until we get a liquor license, I don’t want to book a full schedule. Then, we’ll have nothing to sell. It’s a process that can take a month or a couple of months, you know?”

Fitzgerald also plans to build a new staff from the ground up. While that may sound like a daunting task, she actually says she's looking forward to it. 

"I’m in my sixties and probably not up on the current stuff with younger people, so I’m gonna pull in some younger people to guide me,” Fitzgerald says with a laugh. “Hey, Bernie Sanders is 76 and running for the presidency; I figure I can reinvent myself, too. Maybe the young kids will like some of the old stuff if I bring it back. Stuff that I think is cool, with some really good players. We will see what people think. I like blues, country, outlaw stuff — the good stuff, you know?”

When booking for the future, Fitzgerald recalls a formula used under the old Zelda's system, when Fitzgerald's was really two clubs in one.

"I’m going to do some shows downstairs initially,” she explains. “The downstairs will be a little different. It’s going to be no-cover bands that people can come in and check out, and if you like them, you can tip them. Open to the public, and people can get introduced to new talent. The upstairs will be a venue to where you pay a cover charge. If you can sell out downstairs, then several tickets in, you can move upstairs.

"If you can’t give it away, then you shouldn’t be selling tickets to it yet,” Fitzgerald continues. “I want to put some bands in there that will play regularly. Robert Ellis used to play, and it was always packed. People can just come and hang out and see the same band or new ones. Stuff like that.”

Fitzgerald, who relinquished day-to-day operations of the club in July 2010 when it was leased by Pegstar Concerts, says she’s thinking about bringing in some new sound equipment, but figures she has enough on hand to have shows on the downstairs stage at least. She’s been talking to other people and is thinking about leasing out the upstairs part of the venue for a month or two, she adds, “until I get things off the ground.”

Both Pegstar, who moved out in September of last year, and Fitzgerald’s most recent tenants cited issues with the nearly 100-year-old building’s condition. Fitzgerald left the following comment on Thursday’s article about the fallout from the previous administration's implosion:

I guess Fitz's prior GM, Josh [Merritt], didn't read the lease. If he had, he would know that on page 6, Item 4, that ‘Tenant (Mr. Casey) is accepting the Premises in its 'as is' condition.’ He had five days to notify me of any material flaws with the Premises so that I could fix those flaws. I received no notification.

The rest of Fitzgerald’s comment amounts to a “what not to do” list for running a nightclub. She also addressed rumors that the building is structurally unsound, calling them absurd.

"Absolutely not,” she says. “First of all, it’s heavy timber construction. Those beams are 12”x12” and they’ve had so much pressure on them, they are literally petrified. You [can’t] even drive a nail into them. I have had people come in here and tell me this is the most structurally sound building they’ve been in. People don’t even use 12”x12” anymore. So that’s not even remotely true.”

Fitzgerald has had a roller-coaster experience, but maintains her composure and positive outlook for the club. She knows the business all too well, and calls her issues with her most recent tenants “my wake-up call.”

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this has gotten so bad, I’ve just got to do this myself,’” Fitzgerald adds. “Fitzgerald’s is 100 years old this year. We’ve got to get back to taking care of the customer and taking care of the bands. This is what we do, and it’s why I’ve been here so long."

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Kristy Loye is a writer living in Houston and has been writing for the Houston Press since July 2015. A recent Rice University graduate, when not teaching writing craft or reciting poetry, she's upsetting alt-rights on Reddit.