Because the Internet would never jump to conclusions, many Houstonians may have interpreted Monday's news of Lauren Oakes' ouster at Fitzgerald's as imminent doom for the venerable Heights music venue. While Oakes' departure this past weekend seems to be a matter of “did she jump or was she pushed?”, according to whoever is telling the story, her successor as general manager says the club itself is hardly in jeopardy. According to him, many of the much-discussed renovations have already been completed or are in progress, the others will come in time, and any anxiety on the part of the Fitz faithful is largely the result of unrealistic expectations.
“Too many people think that a 100-year-old building is going to change overnight, and it's not going to,” says Josh Merritt, the new Fitz GM. “We don't really want it to.”
Enumerating the changes that have already been made since the previous tenants moved out in mid-September, Merritt says Fitzgerald's already has new sound and electrical systems, plumbing and air-conditioning. It's been repainted, the parking lot is being widened, and an unwelcome and unsightly mural of one of its most famous alumni, Stevie Ray Vaughan, has been removed. (“It was such an eyesore,” he groans.) Yet to be done are the interiors and the possible addition of a barbecue pit on the back patio. As for one of the most prominent upgrades, the installation of an elevator shaft to ease band load-in, “anybody that thinks you can put an elevator shaft into a 100-year-old building in two weeks is out of their mind,” Merritt says.
“Everything that was immediate is done,” he promises. “Everything else, it's like, 'Yeah, we're gonna do that. We're gonna get to that.' You gotta get some shows under your belt [and] make a little money so that you have it to invest in that.”
Much of the remaining work, little “touchups,” can hopefully be completed on days when the club is dark, Merritt says. The previous occupants essentially left him and the club's new staff with an empty shell of a building, he notes, even taking old band stickers that had been there forever. As for bringing the club back to a level where people might glimpse the Fitz they remember, he promises its new stewards will do their best.
“We don't want to make it so new that it's unrecognizable and it takes away the spirit of the building,” he says. “You want to keep the magic. A lot of us have been going since we were kids. For me, that's over 20 years.”
Like thousands of other Houstonians, part of Merritt's own history is tied up with Fitzgerald's. He says he first played inside the building while still in high school, at one of those old pay-to-play gigs where bands were instructed to sell tickets to their friends and family in order to be paid themselves. Those were the old Zelda’s days, as the (un-air-conditioned) downstairs stage area was once known; bands who sold out of their distributed tickets three times would be bumped up to an opening spot on the bigger upstairs stage, although Merritt says his band did it in two.
In the early ‘90s, Merritt says, his band BodyMindSoul were regulars between around 1992 and ’94, the alt-rock boom years that are generally considered one of Fitz’s most prosperous periods. Before taking over as manager, he has been a booking agent for places such as the White Swan, Walters, Spring’s 19th Hole Bar & Grill and Acadia Bar & Grill, as well as venues in Austin and the Rio Grande Valley. He has also played Fitz many times himself in the death-metal band Spectral Manifest. Besides himself, Merritt says he has recruited three or four other booking agents to help fill the calendar, which he hopes will guard against booking too much of any one type of music into the venue.
“We can all sit down and say, 'What do we want to fill this calendar with?’, so that we can keep the variety so that it's not all indie-rock, it's not all heavy metal, it's not all country,” Merritt explains. “I want to bring a well-rounded collection of music to this place, because that's what it's always been about.”
Show-wise, besides noting that “everything on the Web site is intact” and pointing out several dates he has circled on the Fitz calendar — Deicide, local heroes Oceans of Slumber, Mars Volta descendants Antemasque — Merritt says he’s hopeful he can convince Transmission Entertainment to resume booking shows at the venue after it pulled out earlier this month because of reservations about the progress of the renovations. The Austin promoters’ primary concerns about the air-conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems have already been addressed, he notes.
“I am actually in the process of repairing that relationship,” Merritt says. “I’ve been in talks with Graham [Williams] a lot last weekend, even leading up to [Monday] night. The main concern on our end is that they come out of this with their name intact, and the same goes for us.”
Fitzgerald’s brand has certainly brightened and dimmed throughout the nearly 40 years the club has been open, cycling through flush eras and dead zones as scenes and trends come and go. The new tenants happen to have inherited the club immediately after a high-water mark in its history, as the previous occupants not only revived Fitzgerald’s in many ways but became successful enough to break ground on their own venue, White Oak Music Hall. But on some fundamental level, the name Fitzgerald’s is synonymous with live music in Houston, and Merritt sounds confident that he and his team have what it takes to live up to the hall's hallowed reputation.
“There's something about that building, the wood and everything,” he says. “When you're upstairs and it's packed and everyone's jumping up and down, you can kind of feel the floorboards up and down, there's a vibe you don't get anywhere else.”