Fair is Fair

The lot at the corner of Fry and Oak streets in Denton, next door to Voertman's bookstore and across from the Cork Screw, still sits empty. There are a few trees and bushes, freckles of weeds on the packed dirt and trash, beer bottles and cans, fliers for shows and condoms, mostly. It doesn't sound like much, but in Denton, this is prime property: blocks away from campus, not far from patchwork quilts of apartment complexes and off of one of the main roads through town. It's big enough to fit an eight-plex or maybe a fast-food restaurant with a drive-thru and parking lot. Or it could add dozens of parking spaces to the bookstore next door for the back-to-school rush. Instead, for 364 days a year, it's deserted. Yet each year on the third Saturday in April, the lot is a makeshift home to Fry Street Fair, Denton's annual rock-music festival and charity fund-raiser, hosting a sound stage, a generator, a tent or two, maybe some portable toilets and lots of drunk college kids baking in the sun.

Even those involved with Fry Street Fair question whether most attendees know the connection between the vacant lot and the noon-to-nightfall concert. The common ground is the Delta Lodge, the University of North Texas' rogue fraternity known for breaking ties with its national organization and settling Animal House-style into the multistory white wood house that once sat on the now-vacant lot. Some people were sure that when the house burned down in October 1995 because of an electrical wiring problem--not a meth lab or unattended bong as some speculated--the Delta Lodge would be destroyed with it. Some contend it was. And even Robert Bone, the president of the Delta Lodge's board of directors, called The Pentagon, will admit that the frat, which is technically a nonprofit corporation these days, is not what it once was. It's because the lot still sits empty.

"After the house burnt down, that was a pretty big turning point in the organization, and some key things changed," Bone says. The most visual change, besides the empty lot, is Fry Street Fair. Once individual bookers scheduled bands for the fair's stages, checking in with the brotherhood as needed. The fire changed that; now there's a music committee whose members make the decisions together. The days of beer-fueled, informal roundtables were gone, replaced by, according to one former fair booker, lodge alumni armed with demographics and charts and numbers.

Plus, with no house to repair and maintain, the money from the fair was accumulating, and it was enough to make some elders nervous about who was guarding the piggy bank. "[The alumni] started taking a more active role as far as the board of directors went and started trying to help guide the organization because we started getting some assets from the Fry Street Fair," Bone says. "As the fair started to get bigger and make some more money, we realized finally that we were sitting on a lot of assets. We didn't feel it was right to trust that to 18- to 20-year-olds to have free reign over."

The alumni saw Fry Street Fair as more than a neighborhood-wide party to raise money for a handful of local charities and to keep the lodge going. To them, it was a "million-dollar business," Bone says. The fair was already turning a good profit, but some thought it could be even more profitable if it attracted more people. So instead of allowing a single person to book the bands (as lodge brothers Cabe Booth, Scott James and Jeremy Shelby had done during the last decade), the informal music committee became more of a governing body, deciding which bands to seek out to increase the attendance numbers.

Shelby, who left last year after several confrontations with the committee, says, "My experience was, as time progressed, the people who were part of the committee weren't really in tune with what was going on. They weren't avid showgoers. They didn't listen to the stuff. They were some of the older guys who wanted to muscle their way into it and create more of a marketing scheme, I think. They were looking to start doing away with the local bands and start bringing in some national talent. That's what they're doing now." Last spring, while Shelby tried to book some lesser-known local bands, many of whom went on to play the F$$$ The Fair concert he organized after leaving the lodge, the committee booked Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and Built to Spill without him.

Paul McEnamy, a brother who booked the fair this year along with the committee, paints a different picture. He says the committee tries to choose bands that past Fry Street Fair attendees would like. "We sit down and name a lot of bands we like," he says. "And we are like the people who go to the fair a lot of the time. And most of us on the committee have knowledge of what those people want to see. We are those people. I'd go to the show regardless of whether I was doing it or not."

Marketing does nevertheless play a role in the new Fry Street Fair. "There was a plan to the mix, and that comes from that focus," Bone says. "We tried to break it down into demographics and to not lose the integrity of the event. The Fry Street Fair is a business, but it's got a stigma about it. And we don't want to turn it into some big festival that basically people see as sellouts and don't have a lot of respect for. Basically we don't want to go down that path. That's not what Fry Street Fair is, but then again we need to justify a $20 ticket price. And, by bringing a different cross section of bands, some of the best local Denton bands, some of the best local Dallas bands, Austin bands, Texas bands and national bands. It doesn't matter as much where the music comes from as long as it's good music. It maintains the integrity of our event."

Still, every March in Denton, as sure as UNT students start cramming for midterms, rumors and complaints about the fair begin to circulate. Many say Fry Street Fair has already sold out, booking fewer and fewer just-getting-started Denton bands every year and turning more toward Dallas, Austin and, for the last two years, national bands. This year's schedule includes national touring bands Frank Black and the Catholics, Mike Watt and Cowboy Mouth, plus established metroplex acts such as Brave Combo, Flickerstick, The Polyphonic Spree and Chomsky. In response, two other fairs have sprung up in recent years: the Mulberry Street Fair (which has been located in a house behind the now-defunct Rick's Place at Mulberry and Avenue A) and Bryan Street Fair, both of which have booked Denton bands not offered the chance to play their hometown's large festival.

Another common complaint about Fry Street Fair is the increased ticket price; this year, admission is $15 in advance or $20 at the gate. Booth, who booked the fair for several years and currently books at Liquid Lounge weekly and Curtain Club monthly, says the Delta Lodge is faced with increasing costs to fence off the festival area, hire Denton police officers and help out companies in the area that must close for the day or lose substantial business. Eventually, the cost, he says, had to be passed along via admission prices.

And like the triangle that symbolizes the Greek letter "delta," the complaint against the lodge is also three-sided. After bands and ticket prices come the questions about why, more than six years later, the lot at Oak and Fry remains empty. Every year, the Delta Lodge says part of the proceeds from the fair will go to rebuilding the house, but so far no construction has started. Not our fault, says the lodge. First, according to Bone, the space was zoned as commercial, so a special-use permit had to be obtained. That took two years, between getting approval from neighbors and the city council. That permit expires in about 45 days, which means that, if construction doesn't begin before that time, then the lodge will have to go back before the city council and apply for an extension, which will only cause further delays. In addition to the expense of building a 10-bedroom, 6,000-square-foot dwelling that will accommodate the lodge for years, there have been added expenses to make the house compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. If the lodge can break ground in time, then Bone says construction will only take eight or nine months.

Booth thinks that having the house completed will solve many issues with the Delta Lodge. "It's my hope that, after they build the house and they get this done, then there will be a lowering of the prices and less of a need for national acts and they can concentrate more on giving these local acts a place to shine as they richly deserve. And Dallas is such a wealthy town that I don't see why we'd need to even go to Austin to get bands."

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Shannon Sutlief