Fitzgerald's is closing for good this New Year's Eve. (Photo courtesy of Fitzgerald's)
Fitzgerald's has hosted thousands of shows.
Fitzgerald's is 42 years old.
Fitzgerald's hosted every genre of band you could imagine.
The Heights is getting ready for a little new year, new you. But it’s losing an iconic 0ldie. When 2019 comes around and the historic neighborhood sheds its skin, it’s saying goodbye to a 42-year-old fixture. Pioneering music hall Fitzgerald’s is officially shuttering after New Year’s Eve.
Fitzgerald’s was a thousand different things to a thousand different people. It was Space City’s special spot for indie and blues, and just about everything else. It was a beacon for traffic. It was a physical landmark — once you pass Fitzgerald’s, turn left. It was a launching pad for up-and-comers.
Fitzgerald’s was where people saw legendary acts, from Etta James to Stevie Ray Vaughan and even Tina Turner and Jay Leno. REM played downstairs for $100 once when it was still a college band.
The sheer number of acts is hard to nail down. But if you’ve guessed in the thousands, you’ve hit the nail on the head. “I’ve had as many as 100 bands in one weekend, bands that you’ve never heard of,” owner Sara Fitzgerald tells PaperCity, laughing.
It’s impossible to distill Fitzgerald’s legacy in any sort of single sentence. You could say that’s thanks to its defying any kind of label other than “eclectic.”
“There were so many shows that appealed to different people on different nights. It was never the same thing two days in a row. One night it’s blues, the next night pop, the next day a birthday party for a little kid,” says Sara Fitzgerald, who is now a 69-year-old grandmother .
“It’s like a church that changes denominations. One day we’re Pentacostals, the next day we’re Catholics.”
Sara Fitzgerald laughs. She ripped the Band-Aid off in August with the reveal that developer EasyPark had bought the land, leaving many to wonder when the end would come. But making it official — Dec. 31 is it — is a new wound.
Then again, Fitzgerald’s almost never happened at all.
“It sat empty for years, it had no plumbing, no air conditioning, no electricity,” Sara Fitzgerald says of the building. “I didn’t buy it saying I would be a club owner. I bought it to flip it. It just took me 42 years to flip it.”
The thousands and thousands of acts blur together over 40 years, but you never forget your first. Fitzgerald had front row seats to an epiphany with limited seating.
“I think upstairs it was Lightning Hopkins. I didn’t have any chairs, I didn’t have any beer boxes. Just beers in containers, and I brought in some folding chairs. Someone brought in a PA and the place was packed. I thought ‘Wow, this is an interesting way to make a living,’ ” Sara Fitzgerald laughs.
Hootie and The Fire
For the owner, Fitzgerald’s status as a venue that gave bands their first gigs was her favorite part of the whole shebang.
“In our business, it’s hard because we’re always on the front lines of getting a band started. We’re the first one to give them a chance. We’re kind of like an investment banker — but when they finally pay off, they’re too big to play our room,” Fitzgerald chuckles. “It’s kind of a labor of love.”
Case in point: the first time Hootie and the Blowfish played at Fitzgerald’s, they drew a crowd of 75. The next time, it was 200. Then, 1,000, with people trying to climb up the sides of the building to get in.
Concertgoers were drawn time and time again not just to the music, but that room full of energy, where people like what they like, Fitzgerald says.
But she may be selling it short with that briefest of explanations. Fitzgerald’s has seen its fair share of insanity — and we don’t just mean Insane Clown Posse shooting Coca-Cola out of toy guns and accidentally flooding the whole downstairs with the soda.
Fitzgerald’s may have been a little ramshackle to start with, but musicians definitely put it through the ringer. And it always bounced back — mid-show, even.
“I had a band jumping up and down so much that the whole bottom floor sagged so much we had to stop the whole show and bring in two-by-fours,” Fitzgerald laughs.
Fitzgerald’s has walked, or maybe limped, through the fire.
“One night we had a band come and set the building on fire with pyrotechnics. We had to run everyone out of the building and put out the flames. Then brought them back in and finished the show,” the owner remembers.
“I had more fun things in one week then probably most people have in their whole life.”
There was also a little wear and tear for Sara Fitzgerald, staying up until 4 in the morning after screaming, moshing and stage-diving. “I just can’t do that anymore,” she says.
Fitzgerald’s isn’t going quietly into New Year’s night. Bands are throwing going away parties throughout the month, from rockabilly group Hickoids to British electronic musician Doctor Rockit.
It all comes down to the December 31st show by Skyrocket, who’s played at Fitzgerald’s in different incarnations over the past 35 years.
Now, times are different. And alarming, for some.
The End of a Heights’ Era
The developer’s already bought up land all along White Oak, raising eyebrows and suspicions of something like a parking lot (or more likely a high-rise) in place of paradise.
There were warning signs, to be sure. It looked like end of times back when the delightfully decrepit concert hall upgraded to a digital neon sign out front. Hardcore fans weren’t use to the scrolling script.
But now, it’s truly the end of an era — maybe for The Heights as a whole. Sara Fitzgerald moved in back in 1975.
“When I went over there, things were cheap,” she says. “Artists lived there, we were just North Montrose. We were a place where someone could buy a house for $15,000 and get started in life. It was fun.
“Now, those same little small bungalows are selling for $600,000. Artists have been priced out of the neighborhood. Because of that, it’s kind of lost its allure for me. I don’t want to live in the suburbs, in a sense.”
It’s almost the day that music dies — and maybe, there goes the neighborhood as the concert queen remembers it, too.