Fitzgerald’s, a mainstay of Houston’s live music scene for the past 42 years, is closing. The infamously ramshackle two-story club on the corner of White Oak Boulevard and Studemont Avenue will be going out with a bang: local legends such as Bert Wills, Herschel Berry and the Natives, and Dr. Rockit will ride the wave toward its crest and fall, with Austin’s beloved cover band Skyrocket bringing the curtains down on New Year’s Eve.
Longtime owner Sara Fitzgerald is just weary of the hassles. “I’ve been here 42 years, and I’m tired,” she told CultureMap Houston. “You can’t stay up at four o’ clock in the morning when you’re 70.”
The venue’s legend extends to before Sara Fitzgerald’s reign. For a half-century, Fitz’s had a previous life as a center for Houston’s Polish-American community, most of them farmers who’d come to town from places like Bremond and Chappell Hill in search of better jobs. It was then known as Polski Dom—Polish House—and there were meeting rooms, a dining hall, and—of course—a dancehall, where the leading Texas Polish bands would come play foot-stomping polkas and melancholy violin laments. “I was in a Polish dance group there in 1966 at the age of seven,” recalls Houstonian Frank Motley. “My family were members of the PNA there (Polish National Alliance). I promoted and emceed many shows there in the eighties.”
A decade or so later, Motley would be back, this time as a fan of the then-quite-popular roots rock sound. New owner Sara Fitzgerald brought in bands like the Blasters, Los Lobos, X, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Stevie Ray Vaughan was a big part of that new scene. The youthful guitar god had a weekly gig at Fitzgerald’s during his rise to fame, and photographer Tracy Anne Hart captured it all.
Hart remembers that it was in March 1983 when she first saw SRV at Fitzgerald’s. (She was already a big fan of his brother Jimmie, guitarist in the Fabulous Thunderbirds.) “He was coming off ‘Let’s Dance’ with David Bowie, and what was supposed to have been a tour with him,” she says. “I took a tremendous amount of pictures of him there and then he started playing concert halls.”
“Fitzgerald’s was my basic training as a photographer,” she says. “That was where I honed my photographic skills.”
It seemed like the club was most at harmony with itself in the eighties. Fitzgerald was booking the roots-rock and blues acts she personally loved and she was in tune with her crowds. As that music’s vogue waned, she had the wisdom to set aside her preferences and began booking punk, grunge, metal, and hip-hop. Toward the end, it was a hot spot for indie rock bands.
Or hybrid bands, like the vatos rudos in Los Skarnales, Houston’s, and maybe Texas’s, most exciting bar band of the 2000s. “Fitzgerald’s to me and Los Skarnales was like our second home,” recalls Skarnales frontman Felipe Galvan. “A place where every time we’ve played was like a big house party. We had the privilege to invite bands from all over the world who played all kinds of styles of music and the crowd always became part of the party. I’m forever grateful to Sara Fitzgerald for always opening the doors to us and many great local bands. Gonna miss playing there.” (Here’s a complete show, in HD, filmed at the club.)
Like Frank Motley, Butch Klotz has a multigenerational attachment to Fitz’s; older generations of his family danced there in its early days, and then Klotz’s northside Houston punk band 30footFALL played on its stage on dozens of occasions from the nineties up to the present day. Their shows always packed the house, and Klotz was the star. “This comin’ and goin’ is something to think about,” he says. “I think of these pillars of my life who used to dance there not even thinking about me. And then I have also played there for more than half of my life, too. Part of who I am was born there.”
“I will feel the loss more when it is no longer there to go to,” he continues. “I just want to send gratitude to the people who came to our shows.”
And Houston is grateful to Fitzgerald’s for hosting so many of them.