This presentation is part of the Dance Halls, Juke Joints, and Honky Tonks Symposium, March 22-23, 2016. This symposium focuses on the issues associated with the preservation of dance halls and similar sites throughout the rural South. Some of the constant threats include relevancy, development pressures, deterioration, and financial viability. This symposium brings together experts and enthusiasts to discuss history, architecture, and culture associated with these buildings.
Hot Topics: What Dance Hall Owners Need to Know Right Now and Helpful Tools by Deb Fleming
Deb Fleming: Hello. Well my husband talked, today, about hot topics for dance halls and how to survive today’s environment. I thought that the title would be appropriately named, “The Times They Are A-changin” since they definitely are as we heard from Pat earlier and Scott about halls that are no longer around.
Just a little commercial about Texas Dance Hall Preservation. Our mission is to promote public awareness, preservation, and continuing use of historic Texas Dance Halls. We were organized in 2007 as a statewide 501(c)3. We’re all a volunteer board and advisory. Popular Bob Dylan song about change because that’s what it’s all about to keep your head above water these days.
A lot of information that Patrick shared. I think the most important piece of this is current uses because they’re used … We’ve got an inventory of about 500 halls in our database, and it’s a constantly changing target because some that may have had public dances no longer have dances. Some that may have been opened or in use are no longer in use. We’re in the process of trying to update all that over the next year or so.
Some of this I’m just going to run through since I wasn’t sure. This is sort of what Patrick talked about earlier about the different configurations and halls. They were always the community center. They were the turnverein. They were the singing societies. They were the agricultural societies, the religious groups, and SPJST’s.
This is just a picture from our website that you can go and search halls by county, by name, or by band. I’m just going to add that since that was taken. Just a few examples of halls that are no longer around. Just to give you an example, this was the hall that burned in 2007 and what it looked like before. It has been rebuilt, but the windows are small. They don’t open. It’s still multi-sided, but it’s a much less fabulous place. This is one of the Swiss halls. This is right outside of Austin, Texas. It’s in dire shape. This was probably taken, what, a couple years ago, Steve? It’s been vandalized several times, and fires have been built inside of it, that type of thing.
Rather than trying to come up with my own list of things that halls can do to survive today, I thought well, I’ll go out and talk to some halls and just find out from them what they believe the things that they’re doing to keep their heads above water, and these are the halls that I talked with. Luckenbach is the one that is fairly well-known. Some of these are for-profit. Some of them are non-profit. Some of them operate as dance halls today. Some are more rental facilities.
The for-profit halls are Luckenbach open seven days a week, tourist destination. It does music every day of the week. They do do big festivals occasionally, and of course, it’s the place Willie Nelson started doing his picnic. Of course, there’s always the song. Schneider Hall, which is a small private rental venue now, but it had been a dance hall back in the ’30s and ’40s. Pat’s Hall, it’s a rental venue now. It was sold in recent years, and it was one that Pat asked earlier about halls that were both commercial and dance use. Pat’s Hall is basically a book for pository or book publishing company in the back, and then they opened the hall back up. It’s an outdoor facility as well as an indoor.
Luckenbach, just a little bit of history about that. It’s in hill country. Hondo Crouch was a big self-promoter. When Willie and Wayland made that song famous, that’s when Luckenbach was put on the map. It’s the place where everybody is truly somebody. I talked to the person who used to book Luckenbach for about eight years, and I said, what made Luckenbach so successful because it very much is. She said, sheer luck and the song; that they really didn’t have a business plan or a plan of attack. It just sort of happened, and the song is what made it happen, and they just got lucky. People started coming. Of course, the picnic was held there, and they make most of their money on merchandise, T-shirts, caps, and other things.
They have an ever-changing schedule of good music, which is not always consistent with the dance hall. It’s city music, concert type music, singer-songwriter music. It’s not always things that you’d think would be in a dance hall. Of course the growth tourism in the hill country with the wine industry and distilleries are going in right and left. Trigger finger. They’ve got a big outdoor space. It’s pretty much a town, and it’s got a post office and saloon, big outdoor areas, fire pits. Popular with the motorcycle crowd. This is just an example. They’re doing blues festivals there. Every weekend, they’ve got something. They’ve got the mud diver festival. They’ve got Labor Day festival, which is shown here. They do all kinds of things creatively to keep people coming back. Big lineups of musicians. Very scenic, as well. All the windows, as you can see, open up. It’s open air. There’s no heat really to speak of. Ravens and Asleep at the Wheel played for … This was some benefit for when somebody died. I think John Gimble died, maybe.
Schneider Hall, which is one of my favorite little halls because it’s so typical of a small dance hall, sits on private property, south of I-10. First time I saw it, it was a hay barn, and they had it cleared out and decorated for a graduation party. This is probably back in 2008 maybe. They started to fix the place up for a wedding of one of the daughters. I think that became known in the general community, and other people wanted to have weddings there. The family that owned the property started renting it out, and they started to fix the place up a little bit more. Then the mother passed away. The daughters had about five weddings on the books. They felt like they needed to adhere to the commitment they’d made. They went ahead and had the weddings, and then they started getting more calls. Amber, who’s the daughter that now runs the place, she finally decided I need to basically uphold my mother’s dream of making this a wedding venue and reopen it. So they did.
The things that make it work. It’s family owned. The father and the daughter are active members of their LLC. The brother and sister are inactive. They transitioned in 2014 to being a totally rental venue. They do about 20 weddings a year, 15 parties, and 1 public music concert, which is a sit-down concert. It holds about 150 people maybe, give or take. It’s very small. They do a lot of community activities there. They donate the hall for German Society meetings and school functions, that type of thing.
They’ve got no employees to speak of. They hire a few folks, family members, when they need to. They focus on their core new business, the contingent refinement, which is the weddings. They market locally, as well as their website. They put most of their profit back into the hall, landscaping. They’ve built restrooms. They put some sidewalks in, things like that. Just sits out in the middle of a big field, lots of pretty trees around it. They added restrooms over to the side, so it left the hall pretty much the way it was. This reminds me, probably of Dew Drop, of Amandaville more than anything else. They didn’t do anything to it to speak of. No air conditioning. They have many parties. One day, this was a party for a one year old. This was earlier before they reopened it, when they were still doing some work on it.
Pat’s Hall is the one that was partially a book publishing company in the back. It has history over past decades and then in 1985, the owners had just sold it to the book publishers. They bought the property and the house, mainly to house their book publishing company, never thinking they were going to be in the dance hall business. Then they decided to start doing some weddings and do some public dances. That continued to improve the property to do that. This is really the hall, but it’s a concrete block building. It has concrete block floors, so it wasn’t really a hall to begin with. Nothing was built for that.
They started doing some public events monthly. They had several that did well. They continued to do some. Started booking some weddings. Did a lot better financially with the weddings and realized that was really an important business. They did fewer and fewer public events and more and more weddings. The performing rights organization got involved and started billing them outlandish fees and they felt like no longer do public events. Let’s just stick to the private. It’s a beautiful, big oak tree. They’re used to be a stage up underneath it. When I first saw it, the branches were down on the ground. It probably hadn’t been trimmed in years, or maintained in years. This is what it looked like after the shears took it over and cleaned it up. The old ticket booth. I love that it’s like an outdoor night club with booths and the seating. Beautiful place.
Speaker 2: You can tell you don’t get much rain there.
Deb Fleming: It’s the hill country. It’s out west of Austin, beautiful area, big German area.
Speaker 3: They danced around the tree?
Speaker 4: Yes, they danced around the tree.
Deb Fleming: Yes, they danced around the tree. The stage was kind of upper, and then … I’m not even sure how many musicians. I’m sure back in the old days before the tree got so over-grown, I’m sure the musicians had their heads in the trees pretty much.
The non-profit halls, which are mainly the associations and the non-profit halls, more of the community halls. We’ve got four of them. I included the Mississippi 100 Men hall because that’s a little favorite of mine, just a comparison. Twin Sisters Hall, which is probably one of the oldest dance halls in Texas, even though it’s hard to say which one really is the oldest. They’ve been holding one dance a month since the 1880s. It’s part of their charter. Anhalt, which Patrick mentioned, is the big agricultural hall. Probably holds 1,000 people, huge. They went from having two events a year, only. That’s all they did in this hall for years and years and years. Then they started doing more and more events over the years. Now they have a dance just about every week.
Speaker 4: Once a month.
Deb Fleming: They do them more often, a couple of times of month, he said. Just depends on what time of year it is, I think.
La Bahia Turn Verein is over east of Austin, another very large German hall. It totally is all private rentals. We did a fiddle festival there last fall, which was the first public event they’ve done there in a long time. They kind of liked it, but they’re very risk adverse to alcohol, which a lot of these halls are because they don’t want to have to pay the extra insurance. They’re hesitant about doing public events and public dances because of that. Then 100 Men Hall in Mississippi in Bay St. Louis, it was one that was renovated after Katrina by a California couple. It started as an African American hall and it transitioned. They’re doing a few dances a month, one dance a month, but they’re struggling. I talked with them the other day. Trying to find new things to do.
Twin Sisters Dance Hall. It had a bowling alley at one time. It has been opened since the 1880s pretty consistently. Dances once a month. They just went from a non-profit corporation status to a 501(c)3, which they say has opened up huge doors for grants for them. They’re all volunteer. Some of the same families that started this decades ago are still involved, their descendants. They have a dance on the first Saturday night of the month. There’s three halls in this area. There’s Twin Sisters, Anhalt, and Cadalia. They have come together cooperatively, and they each have a dance on one Saturday each month, so they don’t compete with each other. Twin Sisters has the first Saturday, Cadalia’s the second, Anhalt’s the third.
They’ve tendered 501(c)3 recently, opened up doors for grants. They’re diversifying their revenue stream. They’re starting to do some music videos there, some interest in film. They’re doing some one-day festivals now. They started doing one annual fundraiser a year. They needed a new roof, so they did one last year, raised about $12,000. They’re going to start doing them on an annual basis. They’ve gone out, and they’re starting to do a lot more networking in the community, challenging the community to get more involved in the hall again because a lot of the community had fallen off. It had gone to. They used to have three or 400 people to a dance, had gotten down to about 50 people would show up. They almost closed because of the PRO’s and people not supporting it. Over the last two and a half, three years, they’ve come back to life. It is possible to slowly die and get reborn again.
They have found that social media definitely is the way to go. They said that if you had money to spend, spend it on advertising and promotion than anything else, and then listening to what people say. They also feel like it’s good to give back to the community, so they opened the hall up to project graduation, which raises money for the graduation each year. Again, it’s all volunteer. Nobody gets paid. The men work the bar. The ladies work the door. It’s got a nice, big dance floor. Very well-maintained hall. Needs a new roof. We had our first fiddle festival here in 2014, which was the first time they had done something like this. We had workshops and showcases with all types of Texas fiddling. That was a very popular event. Then we ended the day with a dance at the end. We had about 350, 400 people who showed up for this at this hall.
This is one of the things they put together last year. They had a full-day event. It was a fundraiser. They had school activities. They had an art contest from the high school and really some great art. They had a contest for that getting kids involved. I think getting the next generation involved is really important to the long-term survivability of the hall. We had CBS news come to this hall last summer and did a story about some dance halls in Texas, and Twin Sisters is one of the places that they stopped. That gave them a lot of good exposure, and re-energized them to some extent. And a beautiful curtain, which you’ll see these in a number of halls, still. This one’s in pretty good condition.
Anhalt, which is the other big German hall in the same area. It’s a member association. It’s agricultural. They’re the ones that only have two events a year, their May fest and their Fall fest for years and years and years. They didn’t use the hall for any other purpose, which is interesting, since it’s such a big, fabulous hall. Over the years, they started going through changes and felt like they needed to have more events. Now they do, like I say, dances. They do rent out for weddings and things like that. They say that one of the big things is having a sign on the road. That gets a lot of people. It’s all back down off the road with a gate and all that. It’s locked up routinely.
David Davenport, who I spoke with, said two big tips. Find your place in the community and capitalize on it. Know your audience and market to it and be open to alternative. That’s what they had to do to survive. He said the halls that have failed did because they didn’t change or couldn’t change. I think it’s finding the way to evolve with your local demographics, what the local community is wanting, the music trends that are changing and that type of thing. They went from the two events a year to a more regular schedule. They added weddings, which they never did before. They said they really hate it because they’re high demand. They added wine to their bar sales, which they did just recently. They said that’s really helped in their bar sales. They want to learn about the audience, and they do a survey a few times a year to find out what people want to see, what kind of music. They said they stay pretty true to their original tradition of country music. That’s what people expect to see there, so they haven’t veered too much.
This place, the windows open, the doors open. A lot of people sit outside. There’s not a lot of seating in the hall. It’s mainly dance floor. I think this is one of our big events there that TBHP did four years ago maybe with Asleep at the Wheel. Had about 1,000 people there. They won’t let you stand on the dance floor. It’s for dancing. They get really upset if you stand on the dance floor. They don’t do concerts. It’s all about dancing in these places, places like this. They have a big dining hall in the back, so they always do barbecue as one of the things they make their money on even though they say they really don’t make a huge amount as far as marginally on their food, but the food’s a big part of it. It’s just a beautiful hall. There’s the seating around the dance floor, and then they’ve got tables up on the side.
Then there’s 100 Men Hall. It’s a little hall over in Bay St. Louis just outside of New Orleans. It was originally an African American benevolent hall. The Daughters of the American Veterans bought it at one point, started doing events there. It was about to be demolished after Katrina, and Jessie drove by on his bicycle. This couple from California that had bought some property there and called us up in California and said we can’t let this happen to this hall, and they bought it, renovated it to what it is today. This is down on the blues trail. There’s’ that sign that Scott mentioned earlier.
They started off with a big bang. They got on the blues trail. They became a 501(c)3. They got some grants to renovate the hall. All those things happened in the very early days. As they got complacent, because they thought well we’ve made it, and then after they quit that, then they started to see the slump. People quit coming. It wasn’t a big deal anymore. It wasn’t new and fresh. They put the property on the market probably about six to nine months ago. They were ready to move and do something different. Thought somebody else could come in and take it over and do a better job. Couldn’t sell it.
They thought okay, we just need to figure out a new way. Now they’re doing Sunday [inaudible 00:21:17]. They’re trying some new things on Sunday, family day, that people … They say there’s too much going on in the community now because it’s become a little artsy place. They’re trying to find new things to do to keep people interested. There’s a potential that the Amtrak may run through there at some point. If that happens it will change the whole game because that hall was a big part of the rail history there.
I met this lady when I was there in September. I came and did a tour of Louisiana halls and then went over and went to 100 Men hall, and Miss Elphina, who was a historian, she came in and talked to us. She told stories of coming into that hall and going out to the bootlegger because the law men wouldn’t’ expect a young girl going to the bootleggers and brought all the moonshine back to the hall.
La Bahia is another big German hall on the other side of Austin between Austin and Houston, that really dense area where all the halls are. German hall, member organization, still multi-generational. The people that run it were all volunteers. Some of the same families. The president in his 70s remembers going there when he was a child. Remains very active with family-oriented activities. They’re very adverse to liquor sales and public events because of just the alcohol issues and concerns with that.
We did our second annual fiddle festival there and started talking to them about doing public events once or twice a year to get people into the hall because people see these great buildings and they’re going is that a barn, what is that. They don’t really know what it is because they’ve never gone inside. Once they go in, they see these fabulous architectural structures and the dancing and the dance floors. They fall in love, and they want to come back, yet there’s no way to go back because there’s no public events there anymore. It’s a matter of getting them comfortable with. There are right ways to do those kinds of things. It’s a big beautiful hall, well-maintained, all volunteers.
Speaker 5: Is it near a bay?
Speaker 4: No.
Speaker 5: Near a bay because La Bahia means bay.
Deb Fleming: It sits on the road going to the bay, going to the coast. What they’ve done to diversify is there’s a big antique festival that happens just down the road from them a couple times a year. This becomes a huge economic influx for that area. They decided they’d turn the hall into an antique sort of place during a couple times of the year. They’re doing their own La Bahia antique show. They rent the hall out to vendors, and now it’s gotten so big that they do it outside on the grounds. They’ve got several acres there around them. That’s been a real economic booster for them as well, a lot of work, but it’s just one of those things they can do that diversifies their activities and their cash flow. This is of the fiddle festival. We did a little square dancing piece.
The common themes were stay in touch with the times and stay in touch with your community and the interest of your audience. What worked 10 years ago, five years ago, 20 years ago, won’t necessarily work today. I think we heard that theme from Pat and then from Scott, is that the music changes, the audience changes. People age. They don’t go out anymore. Things just constantly change in each community. Becoming a 501(c)3 appears to be helpful for many because it opens up the door for grants that they wouldn’t have gotten as a for-profit. That helps some halls re-engage. That’s not an option for many of course, but that’s one things to consider.
Halls that use volunteers or members keep their over head down, so their fixed costs are way less because of that. Most of these interestingly enough, with the exception of a few, don’t really have a structured financial plan or business plan, which I find very interesting. They just do things because it works, and they evolve and try this and try that. They don’t really have this strategy. Let’s do this, and let’s track this and trim this. Whatever works for them seems to work. Even though they’ve all said we probably should be a little bit better at that, at tracking different things.
Social media, obviously, has become the way to advertise at a very low cost way. You can reach a lot of people outside your general area doing that. Most of them said that’s really made a difference for them in most cases. It’s not like one size fits all. There’s not just a list of things you do, these ten things, and it’s going to keep your hall open. You have to really customize it to your area. Each hall has its own personality from community factors. They all have to hone it to make what works and to constantly stay nimble. Then maintaining these old structures, obviously, are costly in finding reputable vendors to take care of the hall and help with all maintenance is really important.
The Performing Rights Organizations is probably the topic that this group may not really know what it is. I’m not really sure if I’m going to go into great detail. It’s copyright laws. Anytime a public event takes place, and there’s live music playing on a jukebox or streaming, you pay. That hall gets billed by the copyright organizations for music that’s played there. They’re heft fees. You have to buy a license. Some halls have closed because of this. That’s a factor why some halls don’t do public dances anymore, that and the liability factor.
There’s some options. We have an attorney on board who’s offered some suggestions. None of them are easy. None of them are simple. Sometimes may not even be viable, it’s just alternatives at looking at how you can work around paying them or paying less.
There’s some tools that are here as far as tracking, making talent lies, etc. that might be helpful for halls that want a little structure. An offer sheet, so if you’re giving up an offer to a band, you have a document that does that. It’s not just a handshake agreement or word of mouth or phone call. You document it. One of the things on here is asking the band to give you a set list so that way you’ve got documentation of what songs are played. So [inaudible 00:28:28] at least you have a document that shows what they played. At least it shows you’ve got some kind of record keeping going on. Information to send out so that all the personnel at the hall really know what’s going on in a given day with the show, all the details related to that and the band, have information.
Settlement/expense sheets, you keep up with every show that happens. Pretty simple financial stuff. What’d you spend for advertising? What’d you spend for staff? What’d you spend for beer? Then what’d you make at the door? Then when you’re settling with your band, you have an idea about how the money flowed and what they got and what you got, and what the expenses were going to be here. Talent expense tracking, so if you wanted to know, I hired band A and band B, and band A did this amount of money, and band B did this amount of money. If I was going to hire them again, which one would I hire? Which one did a better job, which one brought more money in the door? Not that that always means it’s going to happen a second time the same way, but at least this gives you some information about trends with bands and the draw. If you want to keep up with your PRO, your Performing Rights Organization information, you’ve got a tool to do that.
Then if you’re doing events, having an event planning tool and implementation tool is always helpful. That way you can replicate things and improve on things as you go. Then create an event budget sheet ahead of time, so you know what you planned and how you did, actual business budget. Again, the times change constantly, so you can’t assume if it works today, it’s going to work tomorrow. I think halls that are surviving today are the ones that are able to constantly look ahead and look to the future and continue to make changes and adjustments to how they do business.
Owning and operating a dance hall regardless of the age of the building and its history can be challenging even for the most dedicated business person. As times and trends change more rapidly than ever before it helps to know what came before, keep a keen eye on the present and have a future vision along with a nimble action plan that can adjust quickly to market changes and demands. Critical things a dance hall needs in their ‘tool kit’ can mean the difference between thriving, maintaining or closing up shop. The tool kit may included by not be limited to a variety of financial and experience tracking tools and models, tips for dealing with the ever demanding performing rights organizations (PRO) like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, making the most of your social media activities to reach the biggest but the right audience, best practices for talent buying and talent advancing and so much more. We will share our experiences and some tools and exchange ideas that may keep a few more halls alive for years and generations to come.
Deb Fleming, president of Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc, entered the music business after a 20-year career in healthcare management. In 2005, she bought and managed a large live-music venue just east of Austin, Texas, and in 2008, she became the business/tour manager for blues musician Marcia Ball and her band. Deb is a fifth-generation Texan and San Antonio native. Over the past nine years, she has logged thousands of miles photographing Texas dance halls and meeting their owners and operators. She is also the part-time executive director of Austin’s Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers (HOME).