The Heights Theater opened nearly 100 years ago as a place to watch movies. It later served as an antique shop, an art gallery and, since 2016, as a live music venue for both local and touring acts.
The iconic West 19th Street building with the Art Deco design and big red marquee also hosts private events such as weddings, birthday parties and fundraisers.
But nothing has happened at the Heights Theater since March, when COVID-19 took hold in the Houston area and has since refused to let go.
“It’s a community gathering place, and that’s what we can’t do,” owner Edwin Cabaniss said. “We can’t gather.”
Concert venues all over the city, state, nation and even the world have been in a similar state of limbo during the pandemic. The new coronavirus is fueled by crowds, so places such as the Heights Theater and White Oak Music Hall on North Main Street have been forced to pull the plug on the majority of their scheduled events as required by local and state officials.
Cabaniss said the Heights Theater has had to cancel or postpone nearly 60 shows. At White Oak Music Hall, which held one concert in June before being forced to shut down again, marketing director Mike Mauer said nearly 130 shows have been called off and nearly 100 workers have had to be temporarily laid off.
“The impact has been significant,” Mauer said.
It’s also been industrywide, which has caused lawmakers to take note of concert venues’ financial struggles and take steps toward providing them with relief. Cabaniss said two bills are circulating through the U.S. Congress that could provide a lifeline to small- and mid-sized venues that are in danger of closing if the pandemic persists and singers are kept off stages.
Cabaniss said both the broader RESTART Act as well as the Save Our Stages Act, which is specifically geared toward the live music industry, would provide loans or grants equivalent to 45 percent of a venue’s gross receipts from 2019. According to an economic impact study by the Texas Music Office, the music business and music education accounted for 209,000 jobs, $6.5 billion in income and $390 in tax revenue to the state last year.
Citing figures from a study conducted by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs as well as from the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), Cabaniss said up to 90 percent of small- to mid-sized venues in Texas could be forced to close by the end of this year without receiving aid.
“It’s a dire situation for everybody across the nation,” Cabaniss said. “If (the legislation) comes through, it’s going to be the lifeline that saves the wide majority of these businesses.”
Cabaniss said the Heights Theater will survive either way, in large part because it owns the 19th Street property instead of having a lease. When asked if White Oak Music Hall needs federal assistance to remain open and viable, Mauer said, “It’s hard to make any assumptions one way or the other right now since things can go many ways. We’re focused on taking it one day at a time and thinking about creative ways to generate some money for the business and our staff.”
Both venues support the proposed legislation and are lobbying for it, having joined the NIVA. They also are founding members of the Music Venue Alliance of Texas, which formed in response to the pandemic.
Cabaniss said Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who represents the Heights as part of District C, helped connect the Texas group with congressional leaders from Houston. He said the proposed bills have garnered bipartisan support, with Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota having introduced the Save Our Stages Act.
“We feel like we’re in great shape to get some relief,” Cabaniss said. “It is the relief that we need.”
Added Kamin: “We must continue to do everything we can to ensure that our music, theaters, galleries, museums — Houston’s arts culture that we’re so proud of — continues to have a home here in our city.”
Both the Heights Theater and White Oak Music Hall hope to resume live shows in September. But even if that happens, Cabaniss said it likely will be at reduced venue capacity, which would still limit revenue.
Mauer said White Oak Music Hall must meet three conditions before reopening for concerts – getting the go-ahead from the city, lining up artists who are willing and available to play and the music venue feeling confident it can keep musicians, staff and concertgoers safe.
White Oak Music Hall is open for private events and also is selling gift cards as a way to bring in some money. But those offerings can’t make up for hosting live shows, which may or may not happen again soon.
“Venues and other cultural pillars rely on people gathering and celebrating together to make their business run, so it’s very challenging waters to navigate,” Mauer said. “These bills will absolutely be lifelines to businesses like ours, so we’re supporting it.”