Why the Music Died at Sealy Flats

 

The quirky downtown bar and restaurant with a blues theme and a live music venue that is part of Sealy Flats, closed its doors, it seems, for good last Tuesday. Rod and Dennise Bridgman, the founders and proprietors of Sealy Flats, who refer to the restaurant and bar that closed as “the café,” said that the decision wasn’t an easy one, but they made it within three hours of accepting the resignation of the leasing operator, Randal Coleman.

Coleman, Rod Bridgman relayed, had said he had too much on his plate and couldn’t handle the task of operating the café along with his other businesses. Bridgman still considers Coleman a friend. (Coleman could not be reached for comment).

“I can’t dedicate 60-70 hours per week to it either,” he said. Bridgman underwent heart surgery in October and the doctors told him to take it easy.  Bridgman’s original intention was that Coleman would take over day-to-day operations.

Without someone to operate the café, “there just wasn’t any other option but to close,” he said.

Additionally, Sealy Flats may be a highly visible casualty of broken promises of the oil boom that hasn’t happened for downtown restaurants and bars.  “They said if you can get through the slow months of January and February, the oil boom is going to make 2013 a very good year,” Bridgman said. Instead, according to the State of Texas, mixed beverage, wine and beer tax receipts are down 16% within the downtown zip code of 76903, when comparing October 2013 with the same month last year.

“The weather hasn’t helped, either,” Bridgman said. Sealy Flats is, for the most part, an outdoor venue. The cold snaps last month and again in early December not only closed most of the area’s school districts, but it also cancelled too many shows at Sealy Flats, and revenue dried up.

The History

The Bridgmans bought the Antebellum style building at 204 S. Oakes St. in February 1999. At the time, that area of downtown San Angelo was 80% unoccupied, Bridgman said. “We would sit on outdoors on the second story balcony and count a car passing every five or ten minutes,” Bridgman said, referring to the lack of activity 15 years ago. The couple spent 10 years restoring the old building that had been condemned and abandoned for 20 years prior.

The building was originally constructed to be a hotel in 1908, and operated that way for several years, Bridgman said.  “We were really interested in the history of this building, and we found it listed in a city directory from 1912. It was called ‘Sealy Flats,’ and we decided to resurrect the name,” he said. Conjecture is that the hotel featured the comfort of Sealy Mattresses. “Sealy Mattresses came into existence in 1909 in Sealy, Texas [west of Houston],” Bridgman said, hinting at the coincidence.

Somewhere along the way, as fancier hotels like The Cactus that opened catty-corner across the street in 1928, the building became a crash pad for the poor, and the area known for low-income housing.

“The city said I was crazy,” Bridgman said when he went to the City of San Angelo to obtain building permits to initiate the restoration in 1999. “It’s not like that any more. They’ll bend over backwards for you if you express a desire to renovate an old downtown building.” But when the Bridgmans started restoring their dream, the entire neighborhood was truly blighted.

By 2007, the Antebellum structure was almost finished as a bed and breakfast. But the couple also owned the building next door, to the south. That building was to become the café.

“We started by having once per month concerts in the backyard [that is today where the stage is behind the café],” Bridgman said. As the popularity of the concerts blossomed, Bridgman’s backyard get-togethers, which were occurring once per week by the end of 2007, caught the attention of the City of San Angelo’s Fire Marshall Don Vardeman. Today, Vardeman is a city councilman and a candidate for county commissioner.

“You’ve got to have a fire exit on this backyard,” Vardeman warned, as Bridgeman recalls the conversation.

“In order to build a fire exit in the backyard, I had to build a new entrance into the backyard. In order to do that, I had to get a building permit.  In order to do that, I had to abate asbestos and build handicapped restrooms. And it was [going to cost me] $75,000 before we turned the ground, and so we got to asking, ‘what do we do to pay for the music?’” Bridgman said.

“We thought of several different options and finally went into the direction of the café,” Bridgman said.

This was late 2007 when the decision was made, and Bridgman agreed to host San Angelo’s first downtown blues festival as the café’s grand opening event on May 7, 2008. “I figured we had plenty of time to obtain all of the permits, but it wasn’t until March [2008] that everything came together,” he said.

That left the Bridgmans less than two months to ready the café for the festival.

He couldn’t find a building contractor who would agree to renovate the entire café in that short timespan. So, the Bridgmans turned to an unlikely source of labor.

“The only people I know who are always unemployed are musicians,” he said. So, acting as the general contractor, Bridgman hired musicians to help renovate the café and they made it just in time for the festival.

Since then, Sealy Flats has hosted blues musicians from all over the world to perform on its tiny outdoor stage, usually five or six nights per week. The musicians are attracted to the venue because of its locality between the larger cities east and west of San Angelo. National acts would stop through San Angelo when travelling from, say, Dallas to Albuquerque. Sealy Flats offered a nice place to stay, and many of the famous acts that charge tens of thousands to perform elsewhere worked the small audiences of appreciative local blues fans for tips.  On weekends, Sealy Flats paid the musicians’ fees and recouped the expense with the tip jar, in a blues tradition.

The annual San Angelo Blues Festival attracted 12,000 people this year. For comparison’s sake, the recent resurrections of the old Blaine’s Picnic at the San Angelo River Stage from 2007 until 2009 never topped 6,000 people.

Sealy Flats became not only a downtown San Angelo institution, but also a prerequisite tour stop on the blues music circuit.

That tradition is no more.

The Future

Bridgman isn’t sure what will become of the café at Sealy Flats. He said he’s in discussions with several suitors, but nothing is very far along. The decision to close is less than a week old, after all.

But for fans and former patrons of Sealy Flats, there may be somewhat of a temporary reprise.

“I had Jeff Strahan booked for New Year’s Eve, and that show will go on. We’re going to open and have a party for one night,” Bridgman said.

If sales are down 23% in downtown, where are all the revelers going?

The newcomer Twin Peaks Restaurant on Knickerbocker Rd., far from downtown, grossed $196,318 on alcohol sales in October 2013, the highest gross ever reported from one establishment since LIVE! began tracking San Angelo alcohol sales in 2010.

Though the café is closed, the original bed and breakfast at Sealy Flats, The Blues Inn, is still open for business.

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Correction: Originally published that alcohol sales in zip 76903 are down 23%. After rechecking our math, the sales are down 16%. We had omitted Fat Boss Pub sales in 2013 accidentally. The corrected sentence: " Instead, according to the State of Texas, mixed beverage, wine and beer tax receipts are down 16% within the downtown zip code of 76903, when comparing October 2013 with the same month last year."

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