The Longhorn Ballroom should finally be amplified this spring. Preservation advocates have feared for years that the legendary venue would be torn down. A plan to renovate the property in 2017 ended in bankruptcy and lawsuits.
Then in walked Edwin Cabaniss. He is the person who will bring the music back, the same guy responsible for the sound coming out of the PAs at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff and The Heights Theater in Houston. He bought the Longhorn in 2021, about four years after it had been purchased by a different owner who made some improvements but ran out of money and had to declare bankruptcy. The Longhorn was operating for about 18 months, mostly attracting one-off events.
Cabaniss now has $4 million in city subsidies behind him, which will help bring much-needed infrastructure improvements to the area surrounding the ballroom.
Built for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys in 1950, the Longhorn is certainly the most historic venue left in Dallas, if not the entire state of Texas. It has played host to too many acts to list, but we can try: Ray Charles, Al Green, Selena, Nat King Cole, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Ray Price, Charley Pride, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, the Sex Pistols, Otis Redding. It was once run by Jack Ruby. But the legacy Cabaniss is following is largely that of operator Dewey Groom, who refused to call the Longhorn a honky-tonk, preferring instead to brand it the “nation’s most unique ballroom.” In addition to the country mainstays, Groom welcomed blues and soul acts in the 1960s and helped book the famous Sex Pistols show in 1978.
Cabaniss says the first shows will be announced “soon.” Spring is two months away.
He has released a YouTube video showing construction, appropriately set to Johnny Cash’s “Sixteen Tons,” which shows sparks flying from metalwork, new wood framing, and a 6,000-pound, 60-foot steel beam coming in through the side of the building. The Longhorn will be booked by Cabaniss’ independent agency, Kessler Presents. At 23,000 square feet and 2,000 capacity, the ballroom dwarfs Cabaniss’ other ventures, the Kessler (350 capacity) and the Heights Theater (500).
He sees the Longhorn as an extension for the bands that regularly play those venues before outgrowing them.
“We take great pride that many artists build their fan bases at the Kessler Theater and then graduate to bigger rooms,” Cabaniss wrote in a statement. He was out of town this week and unavailable for an interview. “With the addition of the Longhorn Ballroom, we can continue to grow with them.”
The city of Dallas, meanwhile, sees preserving and improving the space as a spark.
The Longhorn sits at the edge of the Cedars neighborhood, near South Dallas, just above the northern tip of the Trinity Forest and adjacent to the river. Its neighbors include scrap yards, a concrete batch plant, tire shops, and the scattered liquor stores that now populate the radius around where Riverfront Boulevard dead-ends.
The previous owner, an entrepreneur named Jay LaFrance, leaned largely on private dollars. The city agreed to pitch in about $500,000 over two increments to help fix up the place, but the operation went bankrupt after the first payout of $156,000, said Kevin Spath, the assistant director of the Office of Economic Development.
Cabaniss worked directly with the city, making adjustments based on feedback from the City Council’s Economic Development Committee. He got buy-in from prominent elected officials and stakeholders, folks such as Mayor Eric Johnson, Cedars and Deep Ellum Councilman Jesse Moreno, and Preservation Dallas.
In September, the City Council approved $4.1 million in incentives, a mix of tax increment financing, a grant from the city’s Equity Revitalization Capital Fund, and bond dollars. That was enough to cover the financing gap for the $15 million project.
“To successfully rebuild a neighborhood from the ground up, you must have a catalyst project to get it started and an engaged set of stakeholders to sustain it long term,” Cabaniss wrote in his statement.
About a third of the city incentives—$1.4 million—will be for infrastructure around the venue. As Spath told the Council back in September, “On the Longhorn Ballroom side of Corinth, there is no infrastructure. It’s pavement to dirt.” The city will also study the “T” intersection at Corinth and Riverfront, which is frequently snarled with cars. And, of course, there are no sidewalks. Drainage and lighting will need to be installed.
“This is placed in a part of town that we allowed because of neglect by our city to fail,” said Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who represents the neighboring South Dallas/Fair Park. “But we are investing to see it succeed again.”
Robin Bentley, the director of the Office of Economic Development, told Council that the space currently generates about $10,000 in annual tax revenue. After this project is complete, she anticipates it to bring in $500,000 each year in combined sales taxes, alcoholic beverage taxes, and property taxes. The incentives are also paid out upon the project’s completion.
“This is just showing even more of a commitment in my eyes of us investing in southern Dallas. This is beyond the scope of where we normally are putting seven figures of economic development incentives,” Bazaldua said during the September vote. “These [dollars] normally go north.”
Cabaniss has ambitions beyond the Longhorn’s main hall. There is a second building he plans to rehab that would be rented out to artists and entrepreneurs. He’d like to turn the back lawn into a “boutique” outdoor amphitheater. He plans to partner with Dallas College to help introduce students to the entertainment business. He has also worked to get formal historic designations for the venue. The Texas Historical Commission unanimously approved Cabaniss’ application late last year, which means it’s up for consideration to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.
The press release includes a note that “original museum-style displace cases” will be “built into the walls of the Longhorn.” Those cases will include Tex Ritter’s suit, James Brown’s robe, guitars from folks like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Waylon Jennings and BB King, Loretta Lynn’s dress she wore when she played the Longhorn, and Bob Wills’ fiddle amp.
But Cabaniss’ first step is bringing music back to that stage.
“Dallas music fans deserve a locally owned, and independently operated, large venue,” Cabaniss said in his statement. “This will be a place for the community to come together, a place to dance, to hear their favorite bands, and to discover new acts. For decades and decades, the Longhorn has been this place in the community. My team and I at Kessler Presents are honored to be its steward.”