The 47-Year Niche
At Dallas’s Kessler Theater, Jeffrey Liles is proving that you’re never too old to rock and roll—as long as there’s an upscale gastropub down the block.
When Dallas entrepreneur Edwin Cabaniss called him one day in 2009, Jeffrey Liles was skeptical of the pitch he was hearing. Cabaniss and his wife, Lisa, had recently bought the Kessler Theater, a 1941 art deco building in the North Oak Cliff neighborhood. The Kessler was once a busy movie house—it was owned, for a while, by Gene Autry—but it had a difficult history. In 1957 a tornado collapsed the roof and tore down its rear wall. It was rebuilt shortly thereafter, only to burn in a three-alarm fire a few years later. It was rebuilt again and housed a variety of businesses in the years that followed, but by the time Cabaniss bought it, the Kessler had stood vacant since 1978.
Yet Cabaniss, who is active in Dallas’s civic life, saw potential. By 2009 North Oak Cliff, a once vital community that was gutted by the post–World War II flight to the suburbs, was on the rebound, thanks partly to the rise of the nearby Bishop Arts District, a collection of restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries. Cabaniss believed that the only thing missing from the area was a nightlife and entertainment component, and he thought that the Kessler, repurposed as a music venue, could be the anchor of such a scene.
As Cabaniss started talking up the idea in Dallas, it seemed that everyone he spoke to said the same thing: Jeff Liles was the guy who should run the revived Kessler. Liles had long been the de facto dean of the city’s music scene—name a big moment, an influential movement, or a classic concert and he can probably tell you the story behind the story. “For my money, Jeff has been the most committed guy in Dallas music,” says Rhett Miller, of the Old 97’s.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Liles had helped transform a Dallas neighborhood once before. Twenty-five years earlier, he had been a key player in the revival of Deep Ellum, a neighborhood that, nearly a century ago, was famous for its jazz and blues scene; Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, and Blind Lemon Jefferson all played there. The American roots standard “Deep Ellum Blues” offers a portrait of the wild times to be had: “When you go down to Deep Ellum / Just to have a little fun / Better have fifteen dollars / When that policeman come.”
But Deep Ellum, like Oak Cliff, was hit hard by postwar suburban flight; by the late fifties it was a virtual ghost town. Yet art has a way of flourishing where rent is cheap and nobody’s looking. In the eighties Liles and a tight-knit crew of club owners and radio DJs created a scene there that incubated major-label acts like Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, the Reverend Horton Heat, and the Old 97’s. It was a scene initially built for kids from the suburbs who wanted to get away from their parents. “There were no rules,” Liles says. “Kids needed a place to be themselves without being judged.”
Liles was a 23-year-old from Richardson, not exactly a kid, when he first poked his head into Deep Ellum looking for a place for his band to play. He was running from the suburbs too, fresh off a pot bust, a rehab stint, and an appearance on an Oprah episode about children who had disappointed their successful parents. Almost immediately, his band broke up, so he fell into a gig booking other people’s shows at the Theater Gallery, arguably the first hotspot in what would become the new Deep Ellum. “A bunch of us lived in it, basically on the floor,” remembers Liles. “We didn’t meet code. We didn’t have a dance hall permit or know we needed one until a cop came in and asked for it.”
He has great stories to tell from that time. He booked the Red Hot Chili Peppers for their first-ever Dallas gig, in 1985, and took them to his mom’s house to eat macaroni and cheese before the show. And then there was the night in 1991 when he coaxed Kurt Cobain out of a broom closet after a violent mid-show altercation with a bouncer had sent the Nirvana front man scrambling for cover. According to many observers, persuading Cobain to finish the show avoided what would’ve been a full-blown riot.
By the time Edwin Cabaniss came calling, that was all ancient history. Liles had been living in Los Angeles for more than a decade, making music under the name Cottonmouth, Texas, and managing the famed Sunset Strip club the Roxy. Moving back home was appealing, but it seemed like a gamble. “Given the economy at the time and the state of the building, it just didn’t seem plausible,” Liles says. But Cabaniss won him over by committing not only to creating the kind of room that could host top-rank touring talent but also to using the Kessler for other purposes: dance classes, music lessons, and community art shows. And so in 2009 Liles moved back to work as the theater’s artistic director and booker, figuring that at the age of 47 this might be his last chance to have a second act as a transformational figure.
Seven years later, the move seems to have paid off. Since opening in 2010, the Kessler has been named “Best Live Music Venue” three times by the Dallas Observer. The theater’s 350-person seating capacity has earned it a reputation as a “listening room,” a designation that means you can count on a quiet, respectful audience. And with a schedule that includes comedy, dance, and spoken word, it has, as planned, turned North Oak Cliff into a destination for the arts.
“The Kessler has become the tentpole attraction in the neighborhood,” Liles says, sitting in his North Oak Cliff apartment, which is flush with decades’ worth of handbills, gig posters, cassettes, and photos. “New bars, new galleries, and new restaurants are popping up because people like what they see here and want to come back. And the people who already lived here see a budding arts culture as a victory for their neighborhood.”
Liles has coined a name for that budding arts culture: X+, after a pair of neighboring intersections (Kings Highway and Davis; Tyler and Seventh) that, from a bird’s-eye view, form an X and a plus sign. If you’re driving south on Tyler, you can turn left on Davis to get to Bishop Arts or right to get to the Kessler. “People know when you say Deep Ellum, it means a music and art destination for a younger audience. I wanted X+ to denote something similar, but for a slightly older audience,” Liles says.
And indeed, the most striking thing about the Kessler’s success is that its core audience is between 35 and 65 years of age—an anomaly in an industry that’s always hankering after the youngest demographic possible. “It’s a niche, but it’s also bigger than that,” says Liles. “A lot of our audience had disengaged from live music. They may have gone out every weekend when they were younger, but then jobs and kids intervened and they lost touch with the scene. Every night somebody will tell me we helped them reconnect with what they once loved about live music. Older folks feel comfortable here.”
And well they should. The Kessler has free street parking, dining options, and, by design, bars that are set outside the main music hall, not in it, which keeps the focus on the performer. Every seat inside is less than fifty feet from the stage, and the upstairs balcony, the Gallery, features oversized furniture and a rotating collection of local fine art. Printed on every ticket and displayed on a poster in the theater’s lobby is the Kessler’s “concert etiquette” reminder, which you would imagine a younger audience laughing at: “Go by what other concertgoers are doing. If they are clapping, singing, and dancing, then you should too; but if they are sitting quietly and listening intently to every sound, then you probably should too.” This is the policy that allows Guy Clark and Patty Griffin to play in pin-drop silence or the Suffers and Shinyribs to play to a livelier room.
The weekend of Halloween was an ideal opportunity to see the Kessler and X+ in action. The theater curated a show featuring half a dozen local comics, each performing as the comedian who influenced them the most, including a ten-year-old girl who did a set of Phyllis Diller material. The next night Maroches Bakery, a family-owned institution across the street from the Kessler, hosted a Día de los Muertos celebration. By the time the procession of intricately costumed ghouls and goblins was winding down, concertgoers were arriving at the Kessler for a show by the singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata. On their way in, a couple raved to Liles about the preshow meal they’d enjoyed at Nova, an upscale gastropub down the block.
The Kessler’s reputation no doubt eased Cabaniss’s negotiations to purchase another historic Texas theater in what could become one more thriving arts community. Cabaniss had been looking for a project in another city for the better part of three years when Houston’s 86-year-old Heights Theater—which, like the Kessler, was gutted decades ago by a fire—came on the market. It seemed perfect for his intentions. But in a city famous for its lack of zoning, the Houston Heights neighborhood is an outlier: it’s notoriously tough on code enforcement and wary of developers eyeing its historic residential and commercial properties.
Cabaniss had dealt with this dynamic before. “In Oak Cliff we have a very entrenched group of activists that will rise up and say, ‘We’re not looking for another Bed, Bath & Beyond. That’s not why we live here,’ ” says Cabaniss, who managed to convince the community that the Kessler was not going to be a Hard Rock Cafe in disguise. “Our pitch in Dallas was ‘We’ve lived in the neighborhood ten to fifteen years. We are your neighbor.’ Our pitch in Houston is ‘Look what we did with the Kessler. And we want to be your neighbor.’ ”
It worked. In October Cabaniss closed on the Heights Theater, and renovations have already begun. Liles and Cabaniss believe the older audience they’ve cultivated in Dallas has been similarly underserved in Houston. McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, in the Upper Kirby neighborhood, books many of the same acts as the Kessler but holds just over one hundred people. The Heights will hold roughly four hundred, about the same as the Kessler, and both men are confident they can fill the house.
Right now, Liles is acting as artistic director for the Heights Theater, though how hands-on he’ll be once it’s up and running—perhaps as early as this summer—remains to be seen. The Kessler has turned out to be his dream job, and he has few ambitions beyond it. “Ever since I moved back to Texas, I’ve looked at the Kessler as the last thing I’m going to do in the music business,” says Liles, emphasizing that he isn’t just a local impresario—he’s a local, period. “I like being on a first-name basis with my customers.”