Walters Owner Pam Robinson Hangs Tough
Photo courtesy of Zack Robinson
Pam Robinson is not going anywhere.
The outspoken owner of Walters Downtown — and now an inductee into the Houston Music Hall of Fame — has felt better, true. Recently her doctors discovered that the experimental drug that had been attacking her cancer was going after her heart just as aggressively. She had been on the drug since late April, and had even been able to give up the wheelchair she had been using since beginning chemotherapy last summer. But within just a few days of going off it, her pain was already coming back with a vengeance.
"By Monday I'll probably be screaming at MD Anderson," said a couple of weeks ago in Walters's small office. "I'm not real happy about it, but it was killing my heart, so I had no choice."
But Robinson, who is now 55, has fought tooth, nail and claw to get Walters just the way she wants it (or almost). She's not about to let a little thing like cancer get in the way of her plans.
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Not after battling gentrification and ill-mannered neighbors for years at two Washington Avenue-area venues, and then waiting out months of bureaucratic minutiae (and appeasing more cranky neighbors) to open her new Naylor location behind UH-Downtown. On top of everything else, she did it while Metro's construction of the northbound rail line rendered the area surrounding Walters all but impassable, and with her sense of humor intact.
"It was kind of funny, when you think about it," Robinson begins. "I'm laughing now. One day I pulled up — it's kind of neat how you'd turn down Naylor — and there's these big barricades. They took the street out. No Naylor; it was this deep and all dirt.
"So I get out of my car, looking around, like, 'Damn,'" she continues. "Then I get back in my car and call 311 and say, 'What am I going to do — my road's gone?' They were like, 'We don't know.' No notice. The city apologized; they said, 'We thought your building was empty.'
"I said, 'Well, it is, because I'm waiting for the city.'"
The old Walter's On Washington
Once known as the "Mayor of Pamland" because she owned Mary Jane's, Silky's and Walter's all at once, Robinson originally vacated Walter's on Washington in June 2011. By then she had spent years watching the avenue steadily become Houston's latest trendy nightlife playground, with the juvenile behavior to match. Washington's growing amount of liquor licenses and traffic congestion led to an environment of frequent public intoxication and, for Robinson's customers, a dearth of easily accessible parking.
She began making plans to relocate when the property was sold around August 2009. After months of back-and-forth with various city departments ("before you know it, six months has gone by," Robinson says) and making minor improvements to the building, like bathrooms, Walters Downtown finally opened in early 2012. Barely a year later, Robinson went to the doctor thinking she had arthritis; instead, she learned there was a tumor on her spine. It was Stage 4 cancer, they said, the kind no longer localized to one part of the body.
Both her staff, who Robinson says is more like family (and does include her two kids), and the scores of local musicians who had come to appreciate Walters as one of the few places in town willing to take a chance on them, immediately set about organizing a fundraiser for her medical bills.
Wild Moccasins during the three-night "Keep Calm, Fight Cancer" benefit for Robinson, September 2013
Photo by Jim Bricker
It wound up stretching over three nights and brought in at least $20,000, no doubt more after all the auction items and online donations were tallied up. Talking about the benefit is the one point in our 40-minute interview where Robinson, matter-of-fact almost to a fault, gets emotional and has to pause while her voice catches.
"Oh, it makes me cry, it really does," she says. "That was a really bad time for me. I was in a wheelchair and still coming to grips with having cancer, and they were all very, very good to me."
"Pam reminds me a lot of my own mom, who is only three days older than Pam," says Kat Keeter, who has been the assistant manager and a bartender at Walters since 2012. "They are both very strong, independent and driven women who love their families very much, whether you are blood-related or not."
Since she originally bought Walter's Ice House in the late '90s (from Walter himself), Robinson has never had an especially easy time of it. But she says exactly what she means, which is what often makes her such good copy.
In 2002, she was still finding her feet after a bitter dispute with a neighbor who hated her regulars (whom he called "lowlifes") and besieged officials with noise complaints until she was forced to relocate to a new spot a few blocks away. That man, who at one point said he'd like to see a drive-through Starbucks where Walter's stood, eventually moved away from the neighborhood.
"In the long run, I win," Robinson said at the time. "Because I'm having a good time, and he's not."
A few years later, Robinson was again besieged by noise complaints from her snooty neighbors, including one nasty October 2006 incident that turned into a full-on brawl between HPD, the Bay Area folk-punk band Two Gallants and the crowd. Several members of the audience, including a 14-year-old boy, were zapped by the cops' stun guns, and three people, including the band's drummer, went to jail. The fight caught the attention of most local and music-news outlets, including SPIN magazine.
A couple of years and no small amount of further harassment later, Robinson finally sued the neighbors who were making the bulk of the complaints (more than 200 in all). The parties eventually settled, but not before Robinson had spent a pile of money on soundproofing the club. She also promised to turn Walter's into a 24-hour methadone clinic if she was forced to shut down.
"And I will have it subsidized with your federal tax dollars," Robinson told the Press in May 2008. "Don't think I won't. Addicts need help, too."
Houston's the Freakouts were one of the first bands to play the new Walters Downtown in February 2012.
Photo by Larami Culbertson
But during all this time, despite all the noise complaints, parking-related headaches and bad press that contributed to Houston's growing reputation as a hostile environment for indie-minded artists, Walter's persevered. The garage-like venue that started out booking roots music and rockabilly (Robinson's preferences) wound up welcoming future indie A-listers like Band of Horses, the National, Fleet Foxes and MGMT. But just as important, Robinson let it be known that local acts, no matter how green, had a home at Walter's as well.
"This is a much bigger club," Robinson says of her new place, "but we don't care about just doing the big shows. Those are great — ch-ching, ch-ching, my favorite sound — but we also like to keep a little bit of integrity and do the smaller stuff."
"The nightclub world tends to attract people of poor character with wicked intentions," says Ryan Chavez, former drummer of Young Mammals and Robert Ellis & the Boys. Chavez was still a teenager in the early 2000s, when he and some friends began promoting local shows under the name Hands Up Houston and later as Super Unison. Many of them were at Walter's.
"Rarely will you find a figure that understands the value of nurturing a community and is willing to sacrifice their money, time, passion and health to see it blossom," Chavez continues. "Pam welcomes everyone through her doors and immediately gives them an equal chance to have a place in her community. [She] was the Houston music scene's greatest ally in the 2000s."
Without Robinson's efforts, Chavez adds, he doubts the scene now dominated by Pegstar Concerts (which frequently booked shows at Walter's before assuming control of Fitzgerald's) would have had the time to create the kind of environment that allowed Free Press Summer Fest to bloom.
"She didn't have to pander to our culture to gain our trust, and she didn't have to 'get' anyone's artform to understand that it meant everything to them," he says.
Agreeing is Anna Garza, now one of the driving forces behind Girls Rock Camp Houston. The weeklong musical summer camp directed at teenage girls has had its past four end-of-event showcases at Walters but is moving to Fitz this year more or less because it has become such a success.
"She wholeheartedly believed in our mission of empowering young girls through music," Garza says. "Recognizing that GRCH is a very grass-roots organization, Pam graciously donated her venue, [and] in fact she made her venue available to us for fundraising and other social events too. She made sure we had everything we needed to make our events fun and successful.
"Houston needs more business owners who support community-minded projects," Garza continues. "GRCH is forever indebted to Pam for her generosity and support."
"One thing she told me when I first started booking shows for her was to listen to everyone that sends me their music; don't overlook anyone because you never know what kind of crowd they can bring out," Keeter says. "She also taught me that not every show is going to be a huge success, but as long as I did everything I could to make it successful, then that's what mattered."
Robinson would no doubt turn ten shades of tomato red if she heard people talk about her that way. But never in a million years will you hear her say anything along those lines herself. When she talks about the future, it's playing with her grandchildren (she has two, via her daughter), sorting out the parking situation with UH-Downtown once and for all (six more months, she says), and putting the finishing touches on Walters ("a few more things I need to do"). It's not doctor's appointments and chemotherapy sessions.
"I'll be back soon every night," Robinson says. "I think it does me good, I really do, to be up here."
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