Bronco hole

Dallas' last great concert hall suffers growing pains

"I'm only going to play bowling alleys from now on." With that sentiment, Bruce Springsteen christened the new Bronco Bowl--one more legendary memory heaped upon so many old ghosts that still haunt the place, which is still Dallas' last, best mid-sized concert hall. But that January 26 show seems like a long time ago, and already the Bronco Bowl owners are starting to tamper with success, anxious because they have not seen more.

And with good reason: According to people close to Bronco Bowl owners Danny and Tony Gibbs, who sunk about $6 million of their own money into renovating the Bronco Bowl and its adjacent arena last year, the complex is losing money every day. Sources say checks paid to area contractors and radio stations have bounced. The Gibbses, who own their own successful construction company, have trimmed back the hours the bowling-alley side of the Bronco Bowl is open--they're opening the place at 4 p.m. instead of 9 a.m., and many part-time employees and morning-shift workers have been laid off--and now there is speculation the brothers want to unload the Bronco Bowl.

Danny Gibbs didn't return several calls placed to the Bronco Bowl offices, and general manager Mary Stein will not confirm or deny that her bosses are looking to unload the property. But she says this: "It'll be a good buy for somebody. It's now my position to make it profitable."

To that end, Danny Gibbs and Stein have also made a change on the arena side of the Bronco Bowl. After hosting the likes of Lou Reed and Oasis and Cypress Hill, the owners of the Bowl have parted company with the two women booking the arena--former Caravan of Dreams promotions director Georgia Clarke and ex-Observer account executive Ginger Griffice--and replaced them with the guy who booked the Arcadia full of classic-rock acts.

Sean Ashford, responsible for bringing the likes of Blue Oyster Cult and Eddie Money to the Arcadia in recent months until it closed down once more, is now half of the team booking the Bronco Bowl arena. Ashford--who says he was never actually an employee of the Arcadia but merely an outside booking agent--also used to work at Iguana Mirage and the Toulouse nightclub on Sixth Street in Austin. (Ashford, not so incidentally, insists the Bronco Bowl is not for sale.)

Ashford's partner at the Bronco Bowl is Roger Christian, whose background is in "retail and lifestyle marketing" for various bands, as he describes it. Christian owns a company called Real Cool Marketing, and works with the local metal band Solinger--which opened for Tesla at the Bronco Bowl on April 13 and performed after the Seven Mary Three show April 17.

According to Stein, she and Danny Gibbs hired Ashford and Christian because Bronco Bowl management was unhappy the arena was sitting unused most nights. When Danny originally thought of buying the Bronco Bowl and reopening it as a fully functional entertainment complex in the heart of Oak Cliff almost two years ago, he told the Observer he envisioned the arena as a bustling venue filled with stand-up comics, country singers, wrestlers and boxers, and the occasional rock concert--though nothing too heavy, he cautioned, nothing that would invite crowds to "rip out the seats."

When he saw only three shows come through in January--including the January 5 "dress rehearsal" featuring Tripping Daisy and Funland and other local bands, Springsteen, and Cypress Hill on January 31--and none in February, Danny began to panic. The cancellation of the Wynonna Judd concert in April didn't help.

At the very worst, Gibbs simply didn't understand that there are only so many concerts that come through town each year suited for a mid-sized venue--about 30 rolled through Dallas last year, hardly enough to sustain any one venue alone, much less when divided up among three or four places--and he couldn't rely on Pace Concerts, the Houston-based booking agency that controls a huge hunk of the touring shows in the South, alone to keep his doors open. Gibbs also didn't want to share the money with Pace since he was confident he could book the place all by himself.

Originally, the Bronco Bowl was going to enter into an agreement with Pace. The agreement called for Pace to book at least 35 shows into the arena a year, and Springsteen was the company's auspicious debut--especially considering Springsteen was initially reluctant to play a bowling alley.

But several sources say Gibbs has failed to sign the agreement with Pace, even though the company--and the locally based 462 Productions--will continue to book shows into the arena; the Ministry-Jesus Lizard show earlier this month, originally booked for the Fair Park Coliseum but moved to the Bronco Bowl because of poor ticket sales, was actually a joint production between 462 and Pace--a rarity given their competitive situation. But Gibbs wants to maintain his own hold over the arena and make sure it's booked by his own people.

Scott Kernahan, marketing director at Pace, says the agency has been working on a "handshake agreement" with the Bronco Bowl since January. Kernahan says Pace explained to Gibbs from the get-go that during the past five years an average of 30 shows have come through town and played Dallas' mid-sized arenas--meaning those that hold between 1,500 (the Majestic) and 3,800 (Music Hall at Fair Park). Kernahan insists he felt "comfortable" telling Gibbs that he could bring 30 shows to the Bronco Bowl, which seats about 3,000, during 1996. "It was both an optimistic and realistic goal," Kernahan now says.

"But he [Danny] feels he needs 100 events in the room a year,"Kernahan says. "And that means boxing matches, plays, speeches, whatever that might be. He wants someone in there to book more events."

To that end, Clarke and Griffice held one Friday-night fight that worked well for a first-time boxing event at the Bronco Bowl--Griffice estimates paid attendance was around 1,300--and two more were scheduled. But the two women didn't get the chance to hold more events: Two weeks ago, they were replaced--amicably, they insist.

Christian says he was brought in to help shift the bookings at the Bronco Bowl's arena and to broaden the scope of acts. "We need to keep the room lit more than it was," he explains, "so it opens up to Friday-night fights, urban shows, Tejano music, or whatever. There have been a lot of folks knocking at the door trying to bring shows. We're wanting to have something different for everybody."

Griffice and Clarke are fairly quiet about their departures. Both insist they left on relatively good terms with Danny Gibbs, and they say they left simply because they could not provide Danny with the kind of booking policy he envisioned for the arena.

"We were working toward booking comedians and doing the whole spectrum of music--country stuff like Wynonna," Clarke says. "We were working toward that but couldn't do it fast enough. It takes so much time to build a room, and I'm not sure they were prepared to take that time.

"Everybody went in there as a family kind of thing. It was incredible at the beginning. We were there from the beginning, from the [construction] trailers to Bruce Springsteen and Tripping Daisy, and it was great when it was going on. When things started to happen so the outlook didn't look so good, I had no idea what was going to happen. When I left there it was very friendly faces. What they wanted I wasn't capable of doing. Danny wanted to do something different. They needed someone who could take control of the room."

Ironically, Christian says no major changes are immediately in store for the arena: "We're just opening Pace's thought process and ours on different types of acts so they might start chasing stuff for us," Christian says. "We've got things on the books that are private functions like gospel concerts and stuff like that. But I don't know if you're going to see a real visible change. We'll be progressive, especially with Pace, and you'll see more shows come to the Bronco Bowl."

The only question now is: When?
Ashford says he and Christian have booked several "big name shows, not washed-up bands" in upcoming weeks--including Rickie Lee Jones on July 19, although her record label, Reprise, says the date is still unconfirmed. Ashford also says comedian Steven Wright and jazz-pop star George Benson have been placed on the schedule, as well as a so-called "Classic Rock All-Star" concert on June 16 that will feature Foghat, Iron Butterfly, Black Oak Arkansas, Pat Travers, and Mountain's Leslie West(and who needs Lollapalooza, anyway?).

"And these fights have been selling unbelievably," Ashford gushes. "Don King's son is coming in to do pay-per-view stuff out of here." King's office couldn't be reached for confirmation.

Kernahan says Pace is holding dates in August for Elvis Costello, Tracy Chapman, and--believe it--the Sex Pistols at the Bronco Bowl, though he does have backup venues on standby...just in case. Since 462 is so closely connected to the Bomb Factory, and the Louisiana-based Beaver Productions handles the relatively few shows that come into the Dallas Music Complex, it will be up to Pace to fill the Bronco Bowl. And it will be up to Danny and Tony Gibbs--and now Sean Ashford and Roger Christian--to make sure the place stays open long enough to fulfill that goal.

"In the last five months," Kernahan says, "the room has become recognized around the country. It's a room bands want to play, so our theory was we could get 85 to 90 percent of the shows that play mid-sized rooms...In my mind, the room is going to be there forever, like the Fox Theater in Detroit. That place has also been through a couple of owners, and it's successful."

End of an era
It's appropriate--for me, at least--that my last "Street Beat" should contain the news that Funland has called it quits. Such news doesn't necessarily come as a shock--when a band takes a month off to "regroup" when it should be out there promoting a relatively new record, you know something's up--but it does come as something of a surprise; it's hard to imagine Peter Schmidt, Clark Vogeler, and Will Johnson playing with anyone else. Now, they won't play with anyone, period.

Schmidt has gone to work designing Internet websites, and it's likely Vogeler will join him when an opening becomes available; Johnson will now finish his schooling at the University of North Texas unencumbered by his frustration at not being able to tour. He will also continue writing and recording as his one-man Centromatic Band, which made its (his?) debut on the Observer's new Scene Heard Volume Two compilation and is releasing an EP this month on a friend's tiny Fort Worth label. As Johnson told the Observer several months ago, he just got tired of sitting behind the drum kit when he really wanted to stand behind the microphone.

Schmidt and Vogeler have decided to keep mum about their reasons for calling it quits, but it doesn't take a rock critic to figure out the reasons: Funland, born as Melt more than five years ago, simply wasn't fun for its members anymore. They bit into a major-label deal for a brief moment in 1991, then decided it tasted like shit when Arista delivered nothing it promised; the band's debut EP for the label, Sweetness, was more a threat than a promise of potential, and when the label decided it couldn't make a decision about Funland's future, the band begged out of the contract.

Funland would sign to Crystal Clear Sound's Steve imprint last year and release the terrific The Funland Band, which consisted largely of material that existed for more than a year. The record--which finally garnered the band an Observer Music Award this year after many shut-outs--was as good as any alt-pop-rock record released by any major label in the past couple of years, yet Funland never got any further than playing Trees every Saturday night. You don't get anywhere unless you pack up the van, but a constant shiffle of bass players, Johnson's school schedule, and other dilemmas seemed to conspire against the band.

Deep Blue Something reaps success, and Funland breaks up. No justice, no piece of the action. (Burn, Deep Ellum, burn.) They wanted a deal, then realized scratching their way toward one wasn't worth ruining their friendships; Schmidt had been through enough of that during his days with Three on a Hill a long, long time ago.

And who says good press means jack shit? I've been writing about Funland since I was at the Dallas Times-Herald, sat in the room with them when they were hammering out their deal with Arista, watched them kill a room of label execs at CBGB's in New York, attended dozens of shows (some great, some mediocre, all worth the free admission). Yet they could never get another deal, and they were forced to watch as the likes of Tablet, The Nixons, and Deep Blow take their free lunches and Super Bowl tickets. Funland's final show will take place June 15 at Trees.

And as they go straight, so do I: Matt Weitz, who has written about music for the The Dallas Morning News since 1992 and done a damned fine job, takes over as music editor here this week, and he will begin the job of writing "Street Beat"--God help him. But as I begin my new job as associate editor here, I just say this: I'm still reviewing the new Jackopierce record. You can't stop me.

Street Beat welcomes e-mail tips and comments at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.

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