Historic Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas re-opens next week with Asleep at the Wheel | KERA News
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Historic Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas re-opens next week with Asleep at the Wheel

 The Longhorn Ballroom has been empty for years, but the sign and the building have remained.
Emma Delevante
/
Longhorn Ballroom
The Longhorn Ballroom has been empty for years, but the iconic sign and the building have remained - albeit in deteriorating condition.

New owner Edwin Cabaniss has plans beyond just renovating the legendary music hall. When he's done, there'll be a music complex in the Cedars.

It opened in 1950 as the Bob Wills' Ranch House, and in its heyday, Dallas' Longhorn Ballroom saw everyone play there -- from Merle Haggard and Isaac Hayes to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But the legendary music hall has been shut down and falling apart for years.

Ray Benson is the leader of Asleep at the Wheel, the popular, Texas swing revivalists. On Thursday, March 30th, the band will be the 're-opening act' for the Longhorn Ballroom. Benson recalled playing there back in the '70s, a few years after the band had started.

"It was a touchstone for us because this was the Bob Wills Ranch House," he said, "and it was a classic country-western dance hall stage. I mean, there were silver dollars on the bar, murals on the wall, Western-themed murals."

When the Longhorn opened in 1950, it was called the Bob Wills Ranch House because Dallas real estate millionaire O. L. Nelms built it for his friend -- Bob Wills, the 'King of Texas Swing.'

 Ed Cabaniss in the under-construction Longhorn Ballroom in November 2021
Jerome Weeks
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KERA News
Ed Cabaniss in November 2021 when the renovations at the Longhorn Ballroom had just gotten underway. A lot of the stuff you typically don't see — electrical system, HVAC — had to be fixed first.

But by the '60s, Wills' financial and tax troubles made him sell the place. Eventually, country singer 'Dewey' Groom and his son Doug ran the Longhorn for nearly 30 years, turning it into a fabled music venue.

And Groom didn't book just country artists. Starting in the '60s, the Longhorn was the rare Texas honky tonk to feature Black artists as well -- although for years, they were confined to Sunday evening shows. But major blues and R&B artists played there, including B.B. King, Ray Charles, Isaac Hayes and Al Green. Dallas favorite Johnny Taylor made a live album and videotaped concert there in 1997. Even Selena played there.

And of course, there were the Sex Pistols. The Longhorn marquee announcing their show — along with Merle Haggard's upcoming concert — remains one of the most recognizable, ironic photos of a music hall sign.

Johnny Rotten and company played there in 1978, one of the seven gigs the Pistols had on their brief, notorious, kamikaze tour of the U.S. Band manager Malcolm McLaren deliberately booked them through the South and Southwest (Memphis, Baton Rouge, Tulsa, Atlanta, San Antonio) for maximum provocation and media manipulation.

As it aged over the past 20 years, the funky ballroom went through various incarnations, including becoming a Mexican restaurant. But in 2015, Edwin Cabaniss, the man who successfully turned Oak Cliff's Kessler movie theater into a music hall, approached owners Raul and Rosa Linda Ramirez about buying and renovating the place. They weren't interested at the time, he said. And when they were interested a few years later, Cabaniss was too tied up in renovating the Heights Theater in Houston to take on the project.

The deal finally happened in 2022 — with City of Dallas financial input. But before that got signed, Texas had its deadly ice storm in 2021 -- "and so the sprinkler systems broke," Cabaniss said.

 The damaged state of one interior mural at the Longhorn Ballroom
Jerome Weeks
/
KERA News
The damaged state of the 're-discovered' interior mural at the Longhorn Ballroom

The place was flooded. But it turned out to be a somewhat fortunate disaster.

"There was a back wall," Cabaniss said, "and when the insurance company sent in their mitigators, they started taking some of those things out. And behind one of those walls was an original mural. And when I say original, I'm talking 1950s. Bob Wills."

So there still are cowboy murals at the Longhorn -- all over the place, both outside and in, but most are later additions and some aren't in great shape, either. But the rediscovered one is where Cabaniss is planning on putting the Longhorn's extensive gallery of photos, posters and other memorabilia.

That's right, the Longhorn is something of an historic archive.

"It's an iconic site," said Cabaniss, "and we're in the process of getting it listed in the National Register of Historic Places."

Which is what he did with the Kessler.

But Cabaniss says, what the Longhorn can do now is also important. Its capacity will be 2000 people standing or 1000 seated. That's nearly four times the size of the Kessler. It's the biggest project Cabaniss has taken on.

A small fraction of the posters, photos, album covers and other memorabilia in the Ballroom.
Jerome Weeks
/
KERA News
A small fraction of the posters, photos, album covers and other memorabilia in the Ballroom.

"These really great-small-to-midize rooms, that's what the Kessler is," he said, "and there'll always be a niche for them. The Kessler's become a launching pad. And candidly, the next step up, that's what the Longhorn will be."

With the Longhorn, Cabaniss can help those musical artists who regularly fill nightclubs move up to a larger venue -- and even develop a state-wide audience That's because he now owns two halls in Dallas, plus the Heights in Houston and he has a lease arrangement in Austin.

"We've got the Texas Triangle," as Cabaniss put it — three of the state's major markets.

But the Longhorn sits along the Trinity River, officially in the Cedars -- in an area of scrap yards and transmission shops. It's not exactly Music City USA; it's isolated and low-end industrial with not much residential anything nearby. West Davis in Oak Cliff — where the Kessler's located — wasn't doing really well when Cabaniss started there in 2010, but it still was in a for-real neighborhood, not that far from what soon became the ever-growing Bishop Arts District.

Yet even the Longhorn's location doesn't faze Cabaniss.

"When you have a full six acres," he said, "then you can become your own destination."

The plan is to re-open the Longhorn in phases — which is also what Cabaniss did with the Kessler. In addition to the theater itself, next door to the Kessler are several storefronts, including a nail shop and a massage therapist.

 What the interior of the Longhorn Ballroom looked like a month ago.
Emma Delevante
/
Longhorn Ballroom
What the interior of the Longhorn Ballroom looked like a month ago.

So with the Longhorn, it's all about getting the ballroom back up and running first. Eventually, Cabaniss hopes to build an amphitheater on the land out back -- for yet another music venue. There's also an empty, rundown motel across the parking lot. He hopes to renovate that and rent it out for commercial uses or for non-profit arts ventures. Those tenants could help stabilize the Longhorn's finances, the way those shops do for the Kessler.

And that way, all this Texas music history might just have a future.

The Longhorn Ballroom opens March 30 with Asleep at the Wheel. Other acts coming soon include Emmylou Harris (April 22-23) and Old Crow Medicine Show (March 31).

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at jweeks@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

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Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.