Well, folks, the rumors are true: Fitzgerald’s, the infamous and beloved rock-and-roll dive on White Oak Boulevard, is closing. Just not for very long.
A month or so of downtime is all the rickety old joint will need — at least, that’s the current estimate from incoming general manager Lauren Oakes and her squad, which includes spokesperson Dutch Small, local talent buyer Chris Wise and investor Dacando Casey, among many others. Pegstar Concerts, the local booking and promotions company that has brought Fitz back to vibrant life over the past five years, will depart following its final show at the club on August 29. That’s when Pegstar will hand over the keys to Oakes and company, and the new guys will get to work.
And make no mistake about it, they’re planning on a hell of a lot of work. Fitz’s new operators have some big ideas about bringing the place into the 21st century. That’s means extensive renovations. Practically as soon as the lights go out on the 29th, the work will begin. The sound and lighting systems will be extensively upgraded, for starters, but that’s not the half of it. The old club will essentially be ripped down to the studs, with all-new wiring, plumbing and air-conditioning systems installed. The famous bouncing balcony facing the upstairs stage will be torn down and rebuilt, and so will the outdoor balcony, which will soon wrap around the building’s exterior to create extra room.
An elevator system will replace the desperately hated outdoor staircase used for load-ins. The backstage area will be totally redone. And perhaps most crucially, all the bathrooms will be completely overhauled and expanded.
"The first thing I wanted to change was the bathrooms," Oakes says. "I want to help make it a place that people want to go to, not a place you feel you have to go to. We’ve all gone there when it’s been an old sweatbox. That was kind of accepted, because that’s the way it was in the beginning. I don’t want it to be that way anymore, but at the same time, I don’t want to clean it up so much that it’s unrecognizable. We don’t want to overdo the renovations to the point that it completely loses that old, sweatbox identity. "
The changes won’t end with the building proper, either. Sara Fitzgerald, who has owned the place since 1977, also owns much of the property surrounding the club. Some of the adjacent houses will be demolished to make way for new parking and an outdoor beer garden that the staff hopes will attract patrons even during the days and hours when no music is blasting out of the place.
If all of that sounds pretty transformational, it should. These are top-to-bottom changes. The new operators, however, swear up and down that the silhouette and the soul of Fitzgerald’s will remain cozily recognizable. Fitz will still be Fitz.
"Everyone who is involved with Fitzgerald’s now has been involved with Fitzgerald’s since they were 13 years old," Small says. "We’ve all worked there, we’ve all worked around there, we’ve all gone to shows there and we all love the place. What Houston is getting is a team of devoted Fitzgerald’s veterans who consider the place to be sacred and intend to do whatever it takes to make the place better than it’s ever been."
A major concern for the venue’s many fans is how badly the quality of bookings might suffer once Pegstar leaves. In order to ensure that the new Fitzgerald’s will be able to compete for top-flight concerts with the new White Oak Music Hall and other, established stages around town, Oakes and friends are partnering up with Transmission Events, the Austin-based booking powerhouse behind Fun Fun Fun Fest and the Mohawk. It’ll be Transmission’s first attempt at booking bands in Houston, but it’s hard to argue that they don't know what they’re doing when it comes to live music in Texas.
And hey, if nothing else, the days of your favorite FFF Fest acts skipping Houston are probably coming to a close.
"By bringing in Transmission, instantly we’re going to have a certain level of acts already built in," Wise says. "They’ve already been branching out to other cities; they work in Dallas and San Antonio. They’re a really good coupling with Fitzgerald’s: an established name with an established name."
There’s no denying that a new day is dawning for Fitzgerald’s, and how all of the changes shake out remains to be seen. But the new guys see themselves as stepping up, not stepping in. Oakes has been working at Fitz for more than a decade, and coming to shows there even longer. The other major players, including Small, Wise and Casey, all have deep ties to the place and a passion to see it succeed and thrive for many years to come.
"You can expect the same kind of programming," Small says. "Just maybe look for some bands that are more nationally recognized, while still also supporting the local music scene. There are still going to be free shows. It’s still going to be Fitzgerald’s."
But perhaps the old place will smell a bit better. And sound a LOT better. Oakes is already relishing the thought of jumping behind a big, new soundboard up there, even if her new responsibilities will make such occasions a tad more infrequent.
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"I don't think I can ever not do sound," she says. "It's my favorite thing to do."
So yeah, Fitzgerald’s is closing. But only so it can reopen for the long haul. To hear these folks talk, losing the place would be like losing a member of the family.
"I want to be able to watch 30footFALL on Christmas for the rest of my life," says Wise.
Note: According to outgoing Fitz GM Johnny So, the venue will remain open as a bar until Pegstar's lease is up on September 15.