Staying Alive

Local Charm: Reintroducing Houstonians to their rich history, one beer sign at a time.
Deron Neblett

The decorations have come down, the confetti has been swept away. Look around, because that music club where you rang in the new year may no longer be in business. At least not the way you remember it.

That's the case at Billy Blues Bar and Grill, a landmark blues and barbecue venue located at 6025 Richmond Avenue. Home of the 63-foot saxophone and a top outlet for local and national acts since 1993, Billy Blues will limit its operations to a Thursday-through-Saturday schedule so that construction crews can use the remaining days of the week to build out the main dining area and transform the club into a room that serves up not only the blues but also rock and "Texas music." The new-look venue, with a still-undecided new moniker, tentatively plans to open in mid-February.

Also as part of the ever-changing, never-dying live music scene, two of the city's most unique clubs from the 1980s have been resurrected, although in modified forms. Local Charm, the legendary eastside roots-music watering hole from 1985 to 1995, will reopen on Friday, January 5, at its new location at 1815 Washington Avenue. Ovations, the upscale Rice Village space that opened in the late '80s as an intimate outlet for classical music, has reconfigured its Times Boulevard room into a singer-songwriter showcase venue after a failed attempt at a full-time jazz club.

The latest maneuverings underscore what many industry followers already know: The live music business is precarious. According to Nightclub & Bar magazine, half the clubs fail in their first two years -- for any number of reasons, from poor location to poor service to poor marketing.

The blues-and-barbecue concept is big in Chicago and Memphis, and it worked well when Billy Blues opened in February 1993. So what happened? Houstonians came out for the blues but never accepted the barbecue concept, says manager K.J. Green.

"People were confused about our identity," says Green. "They identified us as a blues club. However, they never accepted paying more for the barbecue than they would pay at Luther's."

The passing of Billy Blues raises a question: Can a live music venue with a 200- to 300-person capacity make a profit in Houston?

Yes, says Green, if you do the right business. Green estimates a club like Billy Blues must gross about $70,000 a month to turn a 5 percent profit after expenses and taxes. That's what Billy Blues was earning in gross receipts in February 1998, according to figures from the State of Texas Comptroller's Office. A year later the monthly gross receipts were down to $45,927. Even though the club enjoyed a few better months during the summer of 1999, the average monthly receipts this year have been under $50,000.

The revenue stream in a nightclub comes from three sources: the door (or cover charge), liquor and food. At a place like Billy Blues, liquor revenues are expected to account for 50 percent of gross income. Cover charges generate about 20 percent, while 30 percent is derived from food. A club owner can attempt to manipulate the revenue streams. For instance, you can try to increase food revenue, but food is hard to manage for many club owners; it eats up profits. Many clubs opt not to offer a menu in order to keep their costs down.

If a club opts out of food, it can choose to raise the admission price. But Houstonians have a thing about cover charges. Every nightclub owner will tell you privately that local audiences are whiners when it comes to admission fees.

"Houston people feel they are being ripped off with cover charges," says Green, who managed a restaurant in New York City before moving here. "At some clubs, you pay $5 to get in and $3 for parking. If you're a beer drinker, you'd rather spend your $8 on beer."

Ovations manager Kevin Kegg says it more bluntly: Those Houstonians who regularly balk at paying cover fees don't truly want to support live local music. If they did, they'd understand you have to pay for it.

"The element that supports live music is much smaller than what you'd expect in a city this size," says Kegg. "Compare Houston to cities like Vancouver or Seattle or even Austin. Those cities have a lot more live music venues than we do.

"If you're talking about showcase venues -- that is, 200- to 600-seat clubs, where you can see and hear musicians up close -- we've got very few of those in Houston. To support a showcase venue, you must have a crowd base that is willing to pay a high cover and high drink prices in order for a club to break even. People here would rather stay home than pay a $10 cover charge to hear a live band. That's almost what you pay to go to a movie."  

Kegg and owner Frank Tilton originally opened Ovations in November 1988 as an intimate club for light classical music. "Classical music didn't pay the bills," says Tilton. The club then shifted to jazz and cabaret. In April 1998 Tilton leased the club to local pianist Paul English (see "The Improviser," by Paul J. MacArthur, November 30, 2000), who planned to expand Ovations and transform it into a full-time jazz venue that offered a small dinner menu. When the investment money never materialized and English's one-year lease expired, Ovations closed.

The new Ovations has more modest changes: The stage has been extended, the acoustic system redesigned, the house piano refurbished, and the seating capacity increased to 125. Kegg and Tilton plan to reopen officially this month as a listening room for local singer-songwriters like Jesse Dayton (who tested the waters by playing to a large, atypically rowdy Ovations crowd in November). The venue also will feature an intimate side bar for neighborhood regulars to gather.

Kegg figures that alcohol sales will generate 60 percent of the revenues, with the remainder coming from the door.

However, alcohol sales are down in Texas since the state legislature passed more stringent limits for blood alcohol levels last year. Known in the nightclub industry as "point oh eight," the law defines as legally drunk anyone with a 0.08 BAC (blood alcohol concentration), compared to the old 0.10 BAC level.

Texas Restaurant Association spokesperson Alison Hovanec points out that although there is no quantitative evidence at this point, restaurateurs say the new law is affecting their bottom line. "The casual drinker who used to have a beer out is not drinking," claims Hovanec. "A majority of the public has become fearful of drinking out or drinking too much, because they are not sure how the law affects them. Social drinkers are opting not to drink, so the sales of liquor are down." Yet according to the National Restaurant Association, alcohol revenues have been flat or declining for the past six years as part of "the new abstinence" movement.

With a handful of exceptions, like the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, the best music venues don't rely on alcohol sales to turn a profit. Young drinkers don't tend to be live music fans. They're out to party and hit on the opposite (or same) sex.

Location also plays an important role in determining a club's profitability. Most of the city's efforts are focused on the burgeoning downtown scene. Of course, nightclub owners located outside downtown disparage efforts to turn the area into a Texas version of New Orleans's French Quarter.

But location means much more than opening a club in the middle of a popular scene. Local Charm owner Rory Miggins decided to reopen on Washington Avenue because the area is on the edge of an urban renaissance. The new Local Charm will be close enough to attract those people used to going to clubs in the area, yet far enough away for an affordable lease. The nightspot is housed in the former Club Madrid, a Hispanic dance hall.

Miggins opened the original Local Charm in 1985 at the corner of Telephone Road and Lawndale, the site of an old grocery store and sandwich shop. The shop had a liquor license that had been held by the Lorino family since the repeal of prohibition in September 1933.

Miggins, a collector of beer and Old West memorabilia, simply adorned the old location's walls with his vast collection. When people came to Local Charm, they got an education about historic Houston. One piece of memorabilia was an advertisement showing Howard Hughes and Jean Peters, his second wife, sitting in front of a fireplace drinking a Grand Prize beer. Grand Prize was Houston's own beer, with a brewery located off Polk and Hughes. Visitors also learned about the wealth of Houston's music community. Miggins brought in local musicians like Leon "Pappy" Selph (who opened Local Charm), Jerry Lightfoot, Grady Gaines, Pete Mayes, Texas Johnny Brown and Joe "Guitar" Hughes.

The former grocery store was licensed for an occupancy of 39 people, but Miggins built an outdoor patio, so the crowd was more like 139 on the weekends. Other area bands that played Local Charm early in their careers included the Road Kings, the Rounders (Mike Barfield's pre-Hollisters band), the Zydeco Dots, the Dropkick Chihuahuas and the Flaming Hellcats.

In 1995 Miggins decided that ten years was enough and that he was making more money at his job with the International Longshoremen's Association (see "On the Waterfront," by Robb Walsh). The year Local Charm closed, the Houston Press named it "The Place We Miss the Most" in its annual Best of Houston issue.  

"When I operated Local Charm, there were not a lot of other clubs in the area, although there was a palm reader down the street," says Miggins. "It wasn't in the seediest Telephone Road location, but fought to overcome the stigma of Telephone Road tooth and nail. We had a lot of the locals who came, and we got a lot of the blues lovers who followed the blues to wherever it was played.

"Word of mouth was a big plus for us. We were successful in getting [the local media] to write about the club. But in the end, we couldn't overcome being a small fry in the wrong part of town."

The new Local Charm holds 280 people. An old-style stage, circa the 1940s, looks out on a large wooden dance floor. There's a sense of Houston history -- Hispanic Houston history, at that -- which Miggins and co-owner John Klotz would like to maintain. That's why they're thinking about involving the nearby Catholic church in a Sunday mariachi brunch after mass.

Local Charm will feature Houston artists who play original music. The Zydeco Players will inaugurate the club when they open for Grady Gaines on Friday. Miggins promises a steady diet of Houston roots music from performers like Lightfoot, Tommy Dardar, Sonny Boy Terry and Dayton.

In short, Local Charm, Ovations and Billy Blues will be battling for the same audience -- and for the same flat alcohol revenue. Club owners agree you won't get rich off live music in Houston. But once you get into the business, they say, it's hard to stay away. They hope the feeling is mutual for clubgoers.

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