Often remembered as a honky-tonk, Dallas’ historic Longhorn Ballroom hosted legendary shows from a variety of music genres for decades, but its heyday appeared to be over. Part of an enormous complex that has been mostly dormant for several years, many expected the landmark to be torn down after it was sold in February. But an ambitious $2 million-plus, two-year project is aimed at restoring the storied music venue, which will officially reopen soon.
Built in 1950 as a performance space for “King of Western Swing” Bob Wills, and called the Ranch House, the venue was later leased to Jack Ruby, who would become inextricably linked to the Kennedy assassination story. It mainly hosted country artists such as George Jones and Charley Pride, but soul acts like Otis Redding and James Brown performed there on Sunday and Monday nights in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The Sex Pistols played an infamous show there in 1978 (singer Sid Vicious angered the crowd and was head-butted by an audience member in response).
More-varied music acts — from Fela Kuti and B-hole Surfers to Rigor Mortis — performed there before the Longhorn Ballroom fizzled out in the early 2000s.
Jay LaFrance, an electrical engineer with a background in business development, says the place had been held together “with bubblegum and Band-Aids for a long time” when he bought it. Faded and rundown, the old country facade looked awful. The color was Pepto-Bismol pink in some spots. But the bones were good and the ballroom, a 23,000-square-foot metal building, had a solid foundation.
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LaFrance is most recently known for senior living homes in rural Texas. But he saw the Longhorn property as an opportunity to work with his family on a long-term project to restore a hometown landmark. He recruited his daughter, Amber LaFrance, for marketing and public relations efforts. Jayson LaFrance, his son, will run day-to-day operations.
The famous stage and dance floor looked flawless when Longhorn Ballroom hosted a charity event for its soft reopening Sept. 9. The space has a capacity of 2,550 and will be used for concerts and private events.
That Saturday evening, the original sign was relit for the first time since a storm blew it down over a decade ago. First installed in 1968, the twinkling lights are not digital, but mechanically function with the original controller, which was built in the ’30s. Another Longhorn Ballroom sign that was once on the roof will be reinstalled after it is repaired.
“We’re finding all these little gems and putting them back in the ballroom so they can be showcased,” says Jay LaFrance.
Indeed, a safe used while Jack Ruby ran the place is on display inside. It hasn’t been opened in decades. And the video for Aerosmith’s 1989 single “What It Takes,” filmed at the Longhorn Ballroom, led to another discovery. LaFrance wondered what happened to the enormous antique chandeliers that appear in a few scenes of the video. They were later found in storage and reinstalled.
But the ballroom is only the first phase of what Jay LaFrance calls “an entrepreneurial playground.”
The 2.5 acres of land behind the building are along the waterfront of the Trinity River. Near the Santa Fe Trail, this enormous outdoor venue will be a container park. Made with repurposed shipping containers, the outdoor area is ready to host concerts, festivals and other events, and can easily be reconfigured into a variety of structures — an extra stage, a place to sell merchandise, a viewing platform or a spot for food vendors. .
Across the parking lot from the ballroom, a 20,000-square-foot building made for retail spaces — it’s often mistaken for a hotel because the second-floor units have a catwalk — has been used as storage for years. The ground-level units will be retail and commercial spaces, but the larger focus upstairs is on art studios and galleries. There are even hopes of restoring an old recording studio that has been rotting away on the second floor.
“Locally, there are many creatives having difficulty finding studio space,” says Jayson LaFrance. “And when they find a space it gets repurposed and the rent goes up. We want artists of all types to be able to have long-term work spaces.” He says the idea is to create a thriving community of musicians and visual artists.
For years, the front of the building operated as Raul’s, a Mexican restaurant named after previous owner Raul Ramirez. Jay LaFrance says they will eventually figure out a restaurant concept, perhaps a diner, and remodel the space. Amber LaFrance says a bar inside the building also will include a much smaller venue for intimate shows.
“We have to connect the generations,” says Amber LaFrance. “We want to celebrate the history and also give younger artists opportunities to perform.”
A Halloween-themed food and beverage festival Oct. 27, The Foodie Experience, is currently the first public event scheduled at Longhorn Ballroom. But with event planners booking now, that could easily change.
Both venues will have several concerts scheduled for early next year, but Jay LaFrance insists that these are not just event space rentals. He says they will partner with local promoters and other venues for concert series and curated events.
“The origin of this is country and it has that country flair to it,” Jay LaFrance says. But he wants the programming to mirror Longhorn’s diverse music history.