Raising Cain: Cain’s Ballroom goes from history to legend
BY JENNIFER CHANCELLOR World Scene Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2013
2/28/13 at 9:08 AM
Visit the official Cain’s Ballroom website.
There's a reason Cain's Ballroom is the most successful venue of its size in Oklahoma.
Heck, there are dozens - make that thousands - of reasons for its world-class fame since its doors first opened in the 1920s.
Many of them are included in the packed-full March lineup of bands rolling through the historic landmark.
There are other reasons, including brothers Chad and Hunter Rodgers, who run the family-owned ballroom. When the Rodgers family bought the joint back in 2002, Chad and Hunter didn't have any real clue what they were in for.
But as they gained experience running the venue, their parents have let them take the reins, they said.
"Our parents don't even have keys to the building anymore," Chad said. "They knock just like everyone else does."
They're strategic about who they book, but they use their intuition, too.
"Booking bands is sort of like our own legal pass for high-stakes gambling," venue manager Chad, 34, said recently while sitting in the office of the landmark.
"We can research a band, estimate their popularity, look at radio play and album sales" before booking a band in the 1,200 capacity venue, he said. "But, really, it's just a guess of what ticket sales might be."
He and Hunter, 30, have run the venue on their own for close to a decade.
These days, the music hall sells more tickets to more shows than any other club venue in Oklahoma. It's also ranked in the top 30 in the world since the mid-2000s, according to numbers from industry tracker Pollstar Pro.
Local neurosurgeon Jim Rodgers and his wife, Alice, purchased and renovated the popular music venue (it didn't even have air-conditioning until 2003).
"They fell in love with the place and believed in its history," Chad said. "They wanted this place to remain locally owned - that's been a powerful motivator for all of us."
Soon after the purchase, Mom and Dad put the kids in charge.
Within several years, Cain's Ballroom's fame shot past the national notoriety it earned in its earliest days as one of the first venues to broadcast live, "coast-to-coast" dances and concerts from its stage in the 1930s.
The venue's fame is worldwide.
London-based indie pop band the xx recently called the brothers to book a show. With some social-media promotion but no local radio play, the Feb. 15 concert sold out "really fast. We hoped for a good turnout, but the speed of ticket sales surprised us and the band," Chad said.
The brothers also run Doc Roc Productions (named for their dad), the booking and promotion company for Cain's and other local venues.
"We don't call bands very often any more," Chad said. "They call us."
This isn't the first time for a sellout, or a quick one. Back in 2005, Sugarland tickets flew. It happened to Beck in 2006. And again with Lee Brice in 2010. Twice to Jack White last year. In fact, capacity crowds happen often.
"It always goes back to being willing to take a risk," Hunter said. "Even in those early days, Tulsa and Cain's Ballroom was a city that would take chances on music it believed in."
Through the years - and through multiple owners - the ballroom has attracted the rough-and-tumble to the elite.
Sid Vicious punched a fist-sized hole into the building's wall during the Sex Pistols' short-lived tour in 1978. Angry that his English punk act's tour was self-destructing in the midst of the band's bad-boy antics, he took it out on the honky-tonk.
The hole is now framed for posterity in the ballroom's main office. For years, band members, hearing of the now-infamous tour stop (one of only a handful of U.S. stops by the Pistols), fit their own fists into the hole. They sign the plaster around it. They take pictures.
Since its earliest Prohibition-era days to its nights filled with world-class electronic dance music (Markus Schulz, April 24) to reggae rock (The Expendables, April 7) to dubstep (violinist Lindsey Stirling, March 4) to the good, old-fashioned Western swing (Bob Wills birthday bash, March 2), people still love to cavort.
Cain's Ballroom is the place to do it.
The brothers said March and September are usually their busiest months. March kicks off touring season for most acts, and September often ends it. Last October, though, "we had 28 of 31 days booked," Chad said.
"Sometimes I tell Chad we're going to learn how to say 'No,' " Hunter said.
But he was serious.
"Working with family is tough," Chad noted while Hunter nodded. "We're all pretty opinionated. We're pretty smart, and we share the same vision of success and understand this venue's place in Tulsa history."
They both agreed this year is already shaping up to be much like last year.
In the first quarter of 2012, the venue ranked No. 15 worldwide for club venue (under 3,000 capacity) ticket sales, according to Pollstar Pro. In March alone the venue will host at least 18 concerts.
Musicians like Beck, The Smashing Pumpkins and Jack White will request to play Cain's, regardless of the size of venues on the rest of their tours, they said.
"I don't know that there's much better of an endorsement than that," Chad said. "Except the obvious - music fans."
Legends and lore
Hundreds of thousands of reasons for Cain's Ballroom's long success are the music fans, who share a spoken-word-like history with one another, like it's a secret handshake, and a rabid loyalty to the venue's stage and acoustics.
And to its distinctive wooden floor that vibrates and shakes with the crowd's screams and boot-scooting.
The legend of Cain's flooring is, well, legendary.
There are the rumors about a "spring-loaded" wooden floor that made early dances so well-attended. That floor was the "secret" to dancers' agility, supposedly, while line-dancing and Lindy-hopping.
In 2007, the worn floor was replaced. The Rodgers family found no springs.
That is, until recently.
"We were repairing a section that had started to sag," Chad said. "The workers took out several layers of flooring. ..."
Finished Hunter: "We found springs."
They weren't the industrial-grade springs one might expect, but what looked more like ... bed springs. He leaned forward while he sat in his office and pulled up an iPhone picture. Bed springs.
"We've been told that in its early days as a dance hall, there were pull-down mattresses that lined the walls so kids could sleep while their parents partied at dances."
Yet another rumor.
"We don't know what the truth is - we've asked just about everybody," Chad said. "I actually like the mystery. I think fans of the venue do, too."
That's how legends are built.
Next month of concerts at Cain's Ballroom
All shows are all-ages. Tickets are available at the venue box office at 423 N. Main St. and at tulsaworld.com/cains
Feb. 28: Tame Impala with The Growl
March 1: Taddy Porter with The Bourgeois and The Del Toros
March 2: Bob Wills Birthday Bash (with The Texas Playboys featuring Leon Rausch & Tommy Allsup, The Round Up Boys)
March 3: Gospel Sunday Brunch with Wink Burcham, Jacob Tovar, Seth Lee Jones
March 4: Lindsey Stirling with The Vibrant Sound
March 5: Martin Sexton
March 6: Yonder Mountain String Band with The Deadly Gentlemen
March 7: STS9 with Cherub
March 8: Robert Earl Keen with Andrea Davidson
March 11: Tegan & Sara with Diana
March 12: Clutch with Orange Goblin, Lionize, Scorpion Child
March 13: They Might Be Giants with Moon Hooch
March 14: Easton Corbin with Adam Craig
March 15: Tech N9NE with Brotha Lynch Hung, Krizz Kaliko, Kutt Calhoun, Rittz, Ces Cru
March 16: Zomboy with Bare, Drumaddic, Rog Mahal
March 22: EOTO with Govinda
March 23: A night with Citizen Cope (acoustic/solo)
March 25: R5
Celebrate Bob Wills' birthday Saturday night
Happy birthday, Bob Wills! Saturday marks another one for the legendary Western swing musician, in "the house that Bob built."
He was born March 6, 1905.
Every year since his death in 1975, Cain's Ballroom has celebrated his big day that celebrates the history of Western swing as much as it does the man who helped make it - and Cain's Ballroom - so famous.
His era may be bygone, but his influence is anything but. Wills' portrait still hangs on the historic venue's walls, and his brand of Western swing (a mix of country, pop, folk, blues and jazz) is still played within.
Nearly every day but Sunday throughout the '30s, he and brother Johnnie Lee Wills and their Texas Playboys band broadcast live from the stage of Cain's Ballroom, where he also hosted notoriously wild weekly dances. Their "coast-to-coast" broadcasts are legendary, as were the raucous nights with dancing and drinking fans that helped earn the ballroom a rebellious and risk-taking reputation.
To celebrate, the Round Up Boys return to play with the remaining Playboys for a night of revelry, Western swing and dancing. Over the years, more than 600 musicians have played with the Texas Playboys, too.
Hundreds of thousands - probably millions - have danced to the music that Bob Wills helped make timeless.
Party on, Bob.
BOB WILLS BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION
The Texas Playboys featuring Leon Rausch and Tommy Allsup, The Round Up Boys
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
Tickets: All-ages. Tickets are $21-23, plus fees, available at the box office, by calling 877-4-FLYTIX or by visiting tulsaworld.com/cains or tulsaworld.com/ticketfly
A legend is born - and reborn, and reborn
1924: W. Tate Brady had the structure built as a parking garage and car warehouse. Soon thereafter, it took the name "The Louvre" and became a public nightspot.
1929: By this date, Madison "Daddy" Cain had taken over the venue that catered to bootlegging and the social elite.
Jan. 1, 1935: Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys play their first dance at the venue after Wills gets booted from Texas for his wild ways. Band manager O.W. Mayo was soon running the joint as a wild and rowdy home base for the Playboys' frequent dances.
1935-1942: Bob and Johnnie Lee Wills and their band played dances that also became the earliest "coast-to-coast" live music broadcasts in the nation by locally owned KVOO radio. "They call it 'The House That Bob Built,' 'The Carnegie Hall of Western Swing,' whatever you want to call it," said former Tulsa World music reporter and local music history buff John Wooley, in the Tulsa World archives. "As far as Western swing goes, there is not a more important venue in the world than the Cain's Ballroom."
1957: Wills returns to Tulsa after a stint in California. He tells a local paper about the changing face of music, "Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928!"
Late 1960s: The ballroom sat idle, but not for long.
1972: The dance hall is reopened under ownership of 82-year-old "Bob Wills traditionalist" Marie Mayers. It functions briefly as a Western swing dance hall and special event rental venue.
May 13, 1975: Bob Wills dies. The Texas-born musician is buried in the state that he's always considered home: Oklahoma. You can find his headstone at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa with the inscription, "Deep Within My Heart Lies a Melody."
1976: Local promoter Larry Shaeffer bought the joint for $60,000 and began its first "full-scale" renovation. Early on, he brought in mostly Western swing and country acts. The first Bob Wills Birthday Bash was held that year (and it's been held every March since).
1979: The Sex Pistols perform a disastrous - and legendary - concert stop at Cain's Ballroom. Bassist Sid Vicious punches a hole in the venue's wall. A bomb threat is called in during the show. Christians protest outside. The police monitor everything. At one point, frontman Johnny Rotten and bandmates hide out in the venue office to dodge cops.
1980s: Soon, Shaeffer branched out to include edgy, younger up-and-comers and stars including Van Halen, Rush, Agent Orange, Metallica. (Yes, Metallica. In 1985.) "You want to know how much he paid Van Halen in the 1980s?" current owner Chad Rodgers asked. "$500."
Late '80s-'90s: Cain's took on another influential music market and embraces its punk and underground edge with acts including Stabbing Westward, The Vandals, The Offspring and others.
Late 1990s: Ownership passed to the Finnerty brothers, including Danny Finnerty, who now is the director of entertainment for The Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa. Finnerty welcomed edgy acts that included Primus, The String Cheese Incident, Weezer, Cake and The Reverend Horton Heat.
2002: The Rodgers family - Jim, Alice, Chad and Hunter - purchases Cain's Ballroom. They read a story in the Sunday Tulsa World about the venue being for sale. The evening Jim and Alice walked into the place, they fell in love with it. Papers for sale were signed the same day. They also form Doc Roc Productions to book and promote concerts at the venue and in the city.
Spring 2003: The venue is closed for major renovations, including a new stage, new sound and lighting, new ceiling, a second-level mezzanine (VIP), expansive rest room additions and new plumbing and air conditioning and heater installation. The venue also expands into the old warehouse next door, and the Bob's side venue, second stage and bar are opened. A sold-out concert by Dwight Yoakam welcomes Cain's Ballroom's official re-opening.
Sept. 4, 2003: Cain's Dancing Academy is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
2004-2005: Soon after, bands including Robert Plant, Bob Dylan, Hanson, Brooks & Dunn, Concrete Blonde, Sugarland, Blake Shelton, Elvis Costello and Loretta Lynn give the venue reinvigorated "cred."
2005: Cain's Ballroom cracks the top 30 in Pollstar Pro's worldwide ranking for club venue (under 3,000 capacity) ticket sales, hitting No. 27 in the industry tracker magazine's quarterly sales reports.
2007: The 83-year-old wooden floor sees its last dance. The sagging and time-worn floor was replaced after attempts to restore it failed. Too many spilled beers and too many years were the reasons. The planks were "badly cupped from moisture intrusion," the supporting structure was weak and "it is unlikely that it would ever serve again as a finish floor," F. Ivan Griffith, senior architect, wrote in his analysis at the time. Performers that year included Tom Morello, Alice in Chains, Snow Patrol, Queens of the Stone Age, OK GO, Kings of Leon, Bloc Party, Ben Harper, Spoon and Wolfmother.
2008-2011: World-class bands are booked, including The Avett Brothers, Ween, Beck, Buddy Guy, OneRepublic, Sonic Youth, Levon Helm, All American Rejects, Les Claypool, Girl Talk, The Dead Weather, The Black Crowes, The Smashing Pumpkins, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Interpol, Social Distortion and TV On The Radio.
2011: Yahoo News ranks Cain's Ballroom as one of the top 10 best live venues in the nation.
2012: CNN ranks Cain's Ballroom among the top 10 best live venues in the nation. Cain's peaks on Pollstar Pro club sales chart at No. 15 worldwide for first quarter 2013. Concerts included Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights, dual shows from Jack White, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Todd Rundgren, Shooter Jennings, St. Vincent, Collective Soul, Death Cab For Cutie, Band Of Horses and Grace Potter & The Nocturnals.
Source: Tulsa World archives, Pollstar Pro
Jennifer Chancellor 918-581-8346
Fans wait for JD McPherson to perform last weekend at Cain's Ballroom. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
The Cain's neon sign shines outside the building.
The piece of wall that Sid Vicious punched a hole through hangs in the office of Cain's Ballroom.
JD McPherson performs during a recent concert at Cain's Ballroom. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Brothers Hunter and Chad Rodgers operate Cain's Ballroom. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Bob Wills celebrates his 64th birthday at Cain's Ballroom on March 1, 1969. Tulsa World file photo
Bob Wills' portrait hangs in Cain's Ballroom. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World