Edwin Cabaniss wants to make it very, very clear: "We're on the five-yard line, not over the goal line just yet, so let's not go popping any champagne corks." But if all goes according to plan, come early 2016 Houston will have its own version of the Kessler Theater in the historic Heights theater built in 1929.
Says Cabaniss, who resurrected The Most Beloved Music Venue in Dallas on W. Davis Street six years ago, expansion was inevitable. But, of course, it wasn't easy. About two years ago, he says, he came to a sort of crossroads: "Do we take what we're doing at the Kessler and try to replicate it into a larger venue in Dallas, or do we try to replicate exactly what we're doing in different markets?" For now, at least, he's got his answer: Head to Houston.
"We're pretty deliberate, and at the end of the day we want to own the dirt underneath us," he says. "This is a multi-generational type of business, so as a result we need to have ownership. There have been lots and lots of great opportunities to come into different markets and work with some amazing people, but those were structure were we'd be the core tenant, which is not really the direction we'd like to go. I'm lucky. I get to do projects I am really interested in, and to me having the ability to have ownership was the key."
He says he'd been eyeing the Heights for close to two years, but it wasn't for sale. So he cast his net elsewhere, considering eight markets within a few hundred miles of Dallas -- among them Little Rock, Tulsa, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin. Nothing panned out.
"And Houston was always on the short list because of Dallas' proximity to Houston and because if its size," Cabaniss says. " I found myself going back to Houston often."
Cabaniss says he has not yet closed on the Heights, which was renovated in 1989 following a 1969 fire that gutted the building. (It echoes the Kessler's story: The Oak Cliff theater was leveled by the 1957 tornado, then gutted by a three-alarm fire just a few years later. They're even similarly sized.) He's awaiting a swim through Houston's Planning Commission in a few weeks before sealing the deal. He hopes to close in early September, then spend the next several months turning it into a live-music venue.
Expanding the brand is good news for Cabaniss and the Kessler (not to mention Jeff Liles, Paul Quigg and the rest of the Oak Cliff staff expected to play a significant role in the Houston theater's redo). But it's kinda-sorts bad news for Dallas, as it puts the kibosh on Cabaniss' expansion plans here -- which could have involved resurrecting other historic venues far larger than the Kessler.
With this deal, says Cabaniss, "I am not looking to expand in Dallas in the near future. The preservation side really interests me. Building up a neighborhood really interests me. Being able to have unique and diverse programming interests me. If we can find that niche in a larger capacity venue in Dallas, absolutely. Thus far we haven't been able to find that just yet. It hasn't been for a lack of trying,. We've made a run at several different locations, but ultimately none of those panned out yet."
Besides, he says, right now it wouldn't make sense to go big in a city where the Kessler's established a reputation as an intimate venue. The reopening of the Bomb Factory in Deep Ellum brought a mid-sized venue back to downtown; and the historic Majestic Theater, where the Kessler occasionally places a show, hasn't been this busy in decades. Add to that the exponentially expanding number of festivals rotating in and out of town, Cabaniss says, "and Dallas is about as strong a market for music venues as exists in the nation. It's a good market to be in, and we have found our niche in the market."