How The Kessler Theater Pulled Off One of Dallas Music's Most Unlikely Comebacks
The staff of The Kessler Theater gets ready to celebrate five years together this weekend
Gary N. Audirsch
Comebacks are all the rage in Dallas these days. This month alone sees the return of 35 Denton (last week) and The Bomb Factory (a week from today), which returns to Deep Ellum, a neighborhood undergoing its own renaissance. But perhaps most remarkable of all is the revival of The Kessler Theater, which reopened in Oak Cliff five years ago this week. The iconic building on the corner of Davis Street and Clinton Avenue stood empty for almost 30 years before Edwin Cabaniss took a chance and brought it back from the dead.
The building first caught Cabaniss' eye in the late '90s, on back and forth drives he was making regularly in the area, where he started living in 1998. Finally, in 2008, he decided to funnel his roughly two decades of business and investing experience into resurrecting the place, which had once been owned by country music star Gene Autry in its former glory days. "The building itself was iconic, with that pre-WWII art-deco façade," he recalls, unable to stop himself from getting poetic at the memory. "The way the sun shined off it like that just made you think about what could be."
Acknowledged over the last five productive years by talents such as Annie Clark (aka. St. Vincent) and the Punch Brothers' Chris Thile, along with anyone who has witnessed a great show there, the Kessler has been lovingly crafted into a performance space that emphasizes the experience of the music over everything else. Where other venues set the scene for a night you may not remember all that clearly, the theater's whole enterprise is to capture the transcendent moments of live performance. It didn't happen overnight.
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Cabaniss is clearly the kind of guy who likes to stay busy. Or maybe he just doesn't know any other way. Up through 2012, he was still working his day job downtown full time to pay the bills, all while dedicating his unpaid efforts to get the Kessler up and running. Now that it's grown into a success beyond all of his expectations, the conversations are about expansion, about what could come next.
That's a far cry from the way things started. Artistic director Jeff Liles and the rest of the skeleton staff were working below market value, and even artists were settling for a percentage of the door instead of a settled fee. "From a financial standpoint, I never had a doubt that we'd be successful over the course of time," Cabaniss insists. "At least on maybe just a real estate level, I felt like I had that covered. But as for how successful we were gonna be, I had no idea how long it would take for us to make a profit."
Thanks to tenants who pay rent in shops next to the theater room, a business plan that was convincing enough to get a bank loan during a terrible economic downturn, and artists willing to work with them in terms of financial agreements, Cabaniss and his staff found themselves in the enviable position of having some leeway with the profit margin. "There was never that period of time where I thought, 'We're not gonna make it," Cabaniss says. "Going in, we were in a unique position that we just needed not to go backward. We could tread water as much as we needed to."
But before they could start, they had to figure out what they wanted the future to look like. While Cabaniss was touring clubs in L.A. to get ideas, Liles suggested a visit to Club Largo, which delivered an experience that would loom large over their vision for the Kessler. At the time, do-it-all maestro Jon Brion (who produced for Elliott Smith) held a residency at Largo; the combination of his masterful performance and a strictly enforced audience-etiquette program made an indelible impression on Cabaniss.
The rest is history. Liles, who provides the music lineage and expertise to match the owner's business acumen, took advantage of some of the building process to archive the resurrection, filming artists playing songs on the construction site. You can still see some of these videos on their YouTube channel. Opening day finally came for the Kessler on March 18, 2010, after 17 months of work getting the building ready to open.
From there, it was still slow going, but the resulting word of mouth eventually built their business. That early period meant a lot for their operation, almost like a band practicing in the garage before being put in the spotlight. "That first 13 or 14 months, this place was really under the radar," Liles says. "You weren't gonna hear about us if you didn't have friends who already knew about it. In a way, that was really a blessing, though, because it allowed for us to really dial this place in."
They did exactly that, quietly working out the kinks of their desired acoustics and personnel, keeping afloat by taking advantage of opportunities the struggling economy provided. "A lot of these touring artists that were normally playing for a thousand people a night, they wanted to play in front of a room full of people rather than a half-empty building where they normally played," Liles says. "After they got in here and played a little and heard it, they were like, 'Holy shit.'"
The Kessler will host its fifth anniversary show Friday, and it features a typically classics-meet-upstarts pair: Marshall Crenshaw playing solo along with the HillBenders, an outfit that specializes in a bluegrass version of the Who's Tommy from start-to-finish. With a better economy, a devoted base of customers and more shows on the way, Cabaniss says the Kessler hasn't peaked yet. At this point, who's gonna argue?
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