There was never any question Sara Fitzgerald would make it.
Even though some 25 years ago a local bank wouldn't lend her money to buy her first home -- lending to single women was risky -- and even though her bosses at Xerox, where she was the first woman in the sales department, kept her managerial aspirations cool by forcing her to continue taking "enrichment" courses, Fitzgerald has succeeded. For the past 22 years she has been running one of Houston's most popular rock and roll clubs. Fitzgerald's, in fact, has outlasted most of the banks in the area. Talk about poetic justice.
Sara Fitzgerald grew up in Pearland. Her high school graduated about 90 kids back in 1967, the year she was voted Miss Pearland High. Friends still joke that her winning photo hangs in the post office.
After earning a degree in finance from the University of Houston, Fitzgerald worked for the copy company full-time and for a real estate agency on weekends. And it was then that she stumbled onto the Old Polish Hall at 2706 White Oak, the building that was soon to bear her name.
Built at the turn of the century, and used by Houston's Polish community for dances and meetings, the wooden structure, which still resembles a squashed Amish barn, appeared to be a financial and emotional sinkhole. Bad plumbing. Hazardous electricity. No air-conditioning. But what to the regular eye looked like hell looked like possibility to Sara Fitzgerald. Being freshly married or perhaps being able to own commercial property as a woman may have affected her viewpoint and, ultimately, her decision to leave the rat race and concentrate on club-running full-time. Whatever it was, Fitzgerald was hooked.
She'd never run a club before. She thought yokels might enjoy actual performers there, so seven months after she took control of the 10,000-square-foot property, she hosted her first Fitzgerald's show, "a folksy thing by some local act," in 1977.
It wasn't until bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins and his backup band asked Fitzgerald if they could promote and put on their own show on the club's upstairs stage that the Gods of Club Business began shining. No one had used the upstairs stage before. It was rickety. The sound quality wasn't great. The second floor, like downstairs, had no air-conditioning. And there was no bar. For the show, which brought about 300 people through the door, Fitzgerald and her crew loaded and lugged garbage cans full of ice and beer up and down all night. A huge bar (which in club argot means "a large profit from liquor sales") and a big door ("a large profit from ticket sales") made Fitzgerald curious. If Hopkins could pull this off, she thought, then so could I.
By the next year, 1979, Fitzgerald was booking her own acts. To lure University of Texas alums, she drew performers from Austin, acts such as guitar god Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose names the young alumni would recognize on the marquee. The tactic worked. Soon Fitzgerald's was part of a Texas circuit for bluesy rock and roll.
"Oh, god, I remember Stevie Vaughan," says Fitzgerald, sitting one afternoon at a table by the first-floor stage. "He used to claim he could tell whether or not you put the ice in before you put the liquor in or if you put the ice in after, because he said when you put the ice in after, you bruised the liquor. So we blindfolded him one night after a show, and he sat at the bar right there," she says, pointing a finger over her fluffy, sandy-blond hair, "and we just sat there all night, and he was saying, 'This one's this,' or 'This one's that,' ya know..."
Did he really know?
"No," Fitzgerald says, rolling her eyes and laughing. "But we were all so fucked up, who could tell?"
What has helped Fitzgerald's mine and retain premier talent is... well, Fitzgerald's.
"The upstairs is the best room in all of Texas," says Linda Waring, former drummer of Miss Molly and the Passions, who has performed in venues across the country. "It's all wood. It has the best acoustics. It has warmth. And, for me, the way my drums sounded there ... they just don't make 'em like that anymore."
The building is only part of why Fitzgerald's shows and performances have been so endearing to so many people. The people also matter. A sound man like Jim Capfer, a Local 51 worker who now works with Pace and Society for the Performing Arts, saved at least one Fitzgerald's show with diplomacy. When X played, lead singer Exene Cervenkova complained during sound check that the system was too noisy, too bright. The sound was bouncing all over the place, she said. "I told her, 'Wait until tonight,' " Capfer says. " 'When the people come in, their bodies, it'll warm up the sound.' " Sure enough, he was right. And a lighting woman like Kris Phelps, who has been a full-time employee of Fitzgerald's since 1983, can augment a performance with the flick of a switch. "It was after Stevie Ray's band had performed for, like, three hours," says Phelps, "when Stevie just sat down at the corner of the stage and played 'Lenny' all by himself. I was working. I just put a follow spot on him the whole time. Just this little pool of light and Stevie sitting there by himself with his guitar. It was great."
But for all its successes, the club has faced its obstacles. In the mid-'80s, an employee opened her own club down the street using booking contacts and partners she knew from Fitzgerald's. Club Hey Hey was a bane to Fitzgerald's. Hey Hey eventually died, but not without transforming Fitzgerald's into something else, no longer strictly a blues rock club, but a punk/alternative/rock/folk one. Punk rockers took over, bringing their own entourages of beer drinkers and performing for peanuts (maybe $1,500 per act, as compared to $10,000 for someone like B.B. King). The place was packed nightly. Fitzgerald's was soon back on top. But for the first time, Sara Fitzgerald felt out of touch with the music.
Another roadblock came after the oil bust of the late '80s when myriad banks collapsed, and 2706 White Oak was taken over by the federal government (only to eventually be bought back by Fitzgerald at half of what she had initially owed).
At the time of the government debacle, Fitzgerald was mother to two children, Andy and Amos, and had grown tired of the hustle and bustle of the so-called glamorous music biz. "The music biz to me," says Fitzgerald, "is cleaning up puke, fixing plumbing and getting rid of rowdy customers."
She and her boyfriend, David, moved to Brenham, about an hour from Houston, and built a home on the range. For three years Fitzgerald ran the company by remote control. But the longer she stayed away, the weaker business got. She returned full-time to the glamorous life in 1992.
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In the interim she had pulled her children from school for a year to teach them how to appreciate good books and had gotten her MBA from Southwest Texas University; she now lives in Wimberley. The degree comes in handy now when she and her two booking agents schedule acts. Fitzgerald has designed a computer program to make the art of booking into a science.
"I tell [my employees], you can't book a show unless you put a pencil to it no matter how much you love this band," she says. "Sometimes I say, 'Yeah, we can have your show or take a Lear jet to New York, have dinner and spend the change.' "
Fitzgerald's, which generates about $500,000 a year in revenue, is doing the best it has ever done. In part, says Fitzgerald, that's because she "just doesn't care anymore."
She laughs. "I've been in rock and roll for over 20 years now. I'm not into the new stuff. I don't buy T-shirts. I don't buy CDs. I'd rather go to dinner and a movie.