Feature Stories

The Kessler Taps Dallas Vet to Lead Heights Theater Relaunch in Houston

Steve Shein just can't stay away from music. A Dallas veteran who was on the ground floor of Deep Ellum in the 1980s, he was a behind-the-scenes player at some of the city's biggest music milestones — from the beginning of The Prophet Bar to the demise of The Bronco Bowl. 

For the past 13 years, he's been teaching at a juvenile correction facility in Providence, Rhode Island. Now, after nearly a decade and a half away, Shein is back in Texas, picked by The Kessler to help lead its new venture with the Heights Theater in Houston.

"I like to say I was born in Rhode Island but I didn't grow up till I got to Texas," says Shein, 58. He first came to Texas in 1978, and is a familiar face as a bouncer, bar manager and tour manager for bands like Rigor Mortis and the Buck Pets.

Shein moved to Dallas at 21 to live with his uncle after dropping out of a New England military academy. "In high school, I thought I would teach," he says. "But I got sidetracked."

It was while working as a cook that he first met Jeffrey Liles, then a high school student, who worked at the same restaurant as a bus boy. Years later, when Liles was helping Russell Hobbs open the Theatre Gallery in Deep Ellum, he asked Shein to work the door at the combination music venue, record store and art gallery. "At the time, I had no idea where that was," Shein says of Deep Ellum.

It didn't take long for him to feel at home. "I can't play any instruments; I play the radio and that's it," he says. "I'm musically inept. I knew the only way I could be involved was behind the scenes."

Shein would see Deep Ellum's growth from a no man's land of empty warehouses to a musical epicenter. After helping to open the Theatre Gallery in 1984, he worked at the first location of The Prophet Bar the following year and then followed Liles to Club Dada when it opened the year after that. Bands like the Replacements and Husker Du would regularly pass through the neighborhood, while locals like The Reverend Horton Heat were busy making a name for themselves.

One show that stands out in particular was the Red Hot Chili Peppers' first in Dallas, which took place at Theatre Gallery. "Jeff and I had gone up the street to get grilled cheese sandwiches at this little diner cart up on Commerce Street, and as we were walking back — it was literally 4 in the afternoon — there was a line going down the block of kids all waiting to see the Chili Peppers," Shein says. "Jeff and I looked at each other and said, 'We're here.'"

Shein would later work at the Arcadia Theater, which a fire destroyed in 2006. "I don't know if there was a little mafia lightning or if it just kind of caught fire," he says of the Lower Greenville venue. After a detour as a tour manager, he worked at The Bronco Bowl in Oak Cliff. His duties fluctuated from venue to venue: Sometimes he was the door man, sometimes the bar manager, sometimes he helped book shows.

"The Theatre Gallery was great, and The Prophet Bar, just because of the raw energy of the neighborhood and the people coming down there," he says. "But the Bronco Bowl was great because you had this big, 4,000-plus seat arena and the Canyon Club [next door], which held almost 1,000 people. You just had these huge acts coming through there: D'Angelo, Jill Scott. ... Everybody played there"

The Bronco Bowl, which was itself torn down in 2003, would prove to be Shein's final stop in the Dallas music scene. "It was a huge complex with 40 lanes of bowling, a sports bar and a huge video arcade," Shein says. The club offered a unique opportunity to get to know some of the artists who played there, such as Beck: "I had a big bag of coins for the arcade, so Beck and I played pinball for a couple hours, we played all the video games and stuff."

After The Bronco Bowl closed, Shein returned to Rhode Island. "I only planned on staying four or five years, but my dad needed a little help because he had health issues, so I ended up staying longer," he says. That's when he returned to teaching, which he'd briefly done in the early '90s, helping incarcerated youths and juvenile gang members get their high school diplomas and GEDs at Rhode Island Training School.

"It was funny. Being in music helped. I'd bring in my old scrapbook and be like, 'See, here's me with Cypress Hill,' or 'Here's me with Snoop Dogg,' or 'Here's me talking to Lil Bow Wow at the Bronco Bowl,'" Shein says. "They'd look at me like I had three heads, because here I am, this old white guy."

But all the while that Shein was out East, he was waiting for an opportunity to return to Texas and get back into music. "I don't know if I was just sick of shoveling snow, but I really missed people and I missed the country," he says.

He stayed in touch with Liles, who joined The Kessler as artistic director when it reopened in 2009, and even returned periodically to help with some of the Oak Cliff theater's events, including the North Oak Cliff Music Festival. When Kessler owner Edwin Cabaniss bought the Heights — another historic theater and virtual twin down in Houston — in the summer of 2015, Shein finally had his opportunity.

"There's nobody I would feel more comfortable having down in Houston, outside of my existing staff in Dallas," Cabaniss says of Shein. The idea is to "replicate the Kessler brand," right down to a renovation that's currently under way based on the Kessler's floor plan. Cabaniss is currently filling out the rest of the staff, which he plans to have consist of Houston natives, with programming kicking off in October. "I hope to have 20 or 30 events, starting at the end of October and going through end of year, to really get things dialed in," says Cabaniss.

While Cabaniss and Liles will be handling most of the booking for the Heights from Dallas, with some help from Suffers manager Mark Austin, Shein will handle the day-to-day operations as general manager. "He's got that regimented military background, so there's a lot of making the trains run on time," Cabaniss says. "It's a huge responsibility. He moved 1,700 miles across the country to do it."
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Jeff Gage
Contact: Jeff Gage