When thinking about Tulsa's music heritage, a variety of images readily come to mind. First, it's artists, ranging from JJ Cale and Leon Russell to Hanson. And on the country side, everyone from Roy Clark to Bob Wills. Second, Tulsa's own architecture comes to mind with locations ranging from our recently renovated Jazz Depot to the Brady Theater, The Church recording studios and most notably, Cain's Ballroom.
Of course, Cain's Ballroom has undergone a revival over the past decade. Once recognized both regionally and nationally as the home of Bob Wills' (and later, Johnnie Lee Wills) weekly radio show, the room later earned its rock credibility as the one that once hosted The Police on an early tour and perhaps most infamously, as one of the handful of venues that The Sex Pistols actually performed at during the band's ill-fated US tour in 1978. In essence, Cain's had become the stuff of legends.
By the late '90s, however, the room was a mere shell of its former self -- a rundown dance hall with a leaking roof in a bad part of town. Turning the place around would take someone with vision: not just for the one venue, but for downtown Tulsa as well.
Then, in August of 2002 that vision came via what may have seemed an unlikely source: namely, Tulsa native and neurosurgeon Jim Rodgers, M.D. and his family.
Over the years, Cain's Ballroom had undergone a number of changes in ownership and management, but had continued to host concerts on what was at least a semi-regular basis. By August 2002, the building was on the market once again and Rodgers, who was already looking for a good investment opportunity, moved quickly to purchase what would become a family project that involved not only himself and his wife, Alice Rodgers, but also his sons Chad and Hunter.
Interestingly enough, the entire family admits they didn't know just what they were getting when they took on Cain's Ballroom. As Chad Rodgers shared when discussing the room, "I don't think we really knew the significance of the Cain's when we first started."
According to Dr. Rodgers, "I'd never heard about it in my teens. I never thought of rock and roll and Cain's Ballroom together, because it was dark in the late '60s. Then we left town in '72 and came back in '89."
During that interim period, Dr. Rodgers followed up his undergrad degree from the University of Tulsa by completing medical school at the University of Oklahoma in 1976, then an internship in general surgery and a residency in Neurological Surgery by 1981. He then established his initial practice in Muskogee from 1981 to 1989, when he moved his practice to Tulsa, where he and the family have resided since.
Looking forward roughly a decade, Dr. Rodgers was well established in his practice and oldest son Chad had graduated from the University of Tulsa, where he had trained to be a stock broker. After landing a job and spending a period of time working for Stanley Morgan, however, Chad was ready to leave the firm, admitting that "At times, I felt like I was kind of gambling with other peoples' money and I just didn't enjoy it."
What would come next merely laid the groundwork for bigger things to come. An initial foray into the entertainment industry began on a smaller scale, with Hardwood Grill on 11th Street.
Investing in Tulsa
"We had taken out a lease on Hardwoods at TU. Chad had played basketball there and had some good contacts -- and it was in a good location, right across from campus," Dr. Rodgers said. "But we couldn't buy the building and it needed lots of love and a lot of work to make it more efficient."
Faced with investing some serious non-recoupable capital in a building they didn't own, the Rodgers continued to look for another investment opportunity. Specifically, they were looking for an opportunity to invest in downtown Tulsa, which was just beginning to show signs of a renaissance.
In reflecting on the eventual decision to purchase Cain's Ballroom, Alice Rodgers reflected, "Not to sound arrogant or anything, but I'll give us some credit for (investing in) Cain's. It sat here fallow for years. Who was going to buy it in downtown Tulsa, on the wrong side of the tracks?"
"We saw the potential, though," she continued. "I think people were waiting to see if we could make it work and if it would make any money before they invested in the neighborhood."
"Our interest was definitely in downtown, though," Chad Rodgers added. "We actually had plans for a music venue at (what would later become) Flytrap. Luckily, a couple weeks later, this opportunity came up."
"I feel like we were one of the first to invest in downtown Tulsa," he continued. "That's not to take away from anyone else, like Elliot (Nelson) or Blake (Ewing) or anyone, but it just kind of feels like we were among the first."
Not only was the Rodgers family at the front of the pack in investing in downtown Tulsa, it showed even more vision by investing in the Brady Arts District. Granted, Brady Theater was still being used on occasion and a few businesses like Mexicali Border Café, Spaghetti Warehouse, The Bowery, Caz's and Majestic (originally opened as a live music club in 2001) were scattered across Brady Street, but very little existed north of that cross street in the Brady Arts district.
If you think back, this was before Soundpony was launched, prior to Crystal Pistol and ahead of Mooch & Burn (later The Marquee, now Vanguard) and Hunt Club. In many ways, the investment in Cain's Ballroom laid the groundwork for all of those other locations to be viable and revive the health of the neighborhood. In fact, before Cain's Ballroom was revived, another source was considering purchasing the building to simply use as warehouse space.
As fate would have it, Cain's Ballroom officially went on the market in August of 2002, and the Rodgers family moved quickly. According to Dr. Rodgers, "We saw it (was up for sale) on the news on a Tuesday night, so I called the realtor Wednesday morning, we toured it that day and made an offer on Thursday.
In quick order, the Rodgers family purchased the building and started to turn things around. After purchasing the Ballroom in August of 2002, they did one more concert with Danny Finnerty (now at The Joint), who had already booked America for an appearance at Cain's and moved forward with a handful of their own shows, such as Todd Rundgren and Bone Thugs and Harmony over the winter, before beginning the renovation process in April 2003.
The last show in Cain's Ballroom before that renovation was a concert by Billy Bob Thornton. When reflecting back on that show, Dr. Rodgers laughed as he said, "I remember Billy Bob Thornton played that last show and he stayed here afterwards and kissed every woman in the room until we closed the doors at midnight." Although that concert marked the end of a chapter in Cain's history, it also opened a new one as the building underwent a complete renovation.
In looking back on his introduction to Cain's Ballroom, Dr. Rodgers said, "As I walked in, I realized this should be respected as a hallowed place. I didn't know the history, but just by looking around at the pictures on the walls, I realized this was someplace special."
Even so, the Rodgers clan was looking at a major undertaking. When initially touring the building, Dr. Rodgers remembers there being a number of buckets on the dance floor, collecting water from the leaking roof. Even more so, he laughs when recalling the plumbing nightmare of the restrooms, from the troughs in the men's room to the shows that they had to plunge the toilets in the ladies' room all evening long.
Once the renovation started, the scope became bigger than the Rodgers' had initially projected, as everything from the climate control to the plumbing and wiring had to be brought up to current construction codes. In the process, the dance floor was taken up and restored (Interesting side note: the legend of the Cain's "spring loaded dance floor" turned out to be just that -- only legend) and the dropped ceiling was taken out to return the room's original barrel roof.
With Mickey Payne and a construction crew overseeing the renovations, the work went relatively quickly, being completed in under six months, but Dr. Rodgers admits it quickly got more and more expensive and became a bigger job.
Alice Rodgers added, "But we were also looking at the Historical Tax Credits the Historical Society did a write up and we took it to the board."
"We got on the National Historical Registry, not based in the building itself, but on its history with Bob Wills," Dr Rodgers added.
That association with Wills may have actually added some flexibility when renovating Cain's Ballroom as Rodgers purchased the room to the immediate south of the ballroom for what would become known as Bob's side stage.
"We thought it was important to have more access to concessions and drinks, as well as have room to get away," Dr. Rodgers explained. "Plus, we were able to add more bathrooms and another bar."
Also in the initial design were plans for a restaurant with food service in Bob's, with a number of different restaurants having been rumored for possible inclusion in the space. "At one point, Joe Momma's Pizza was a possibility," Rodgers said.
Just recently, that vision was fulfilled as Oklahoma Joe's started doing business out of the kitchen space in Bob's before concerts. "We were finally able to work it out," Dr. Rodgers said. "Joe Davidson has so much experience setting things up, and so far it's gone really well."
Making the Pieces Fit
When the Rodgers family originally took control of Cain's in August 2002, Chad was still in the process of wrapping up Hardwood's, but the ballroom wasn't about to stand empty. During the transition, bookings and operations were handled by a couple of teams, first by Mike Jameson and Jeff Martinson and later by Donnie Rich. Eventually, however, operations shifted to make Cain's operations a true family business. Rodgers' younger son, Hunter, was attending Full Sail University, studying recording arts, and as Dr. Rodgers explained, "I thought he had a certain skill set that he could bring to the table that would be valuable."
Hunter Rodgers returned to Tulsa in the summer of 2003, roughly half way through the renovation project, and came on at Cain's Ballroom full time to help operate the business with his brother Chad. Together, the brothers have made an incredible tandem, returning Cain's Ballroom to national prominence. Not only has the venue been referenced by legendary performers like Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello and Robert Plant, but it has consistently landed on the Pollstar charts as one of the Top 50 small concert venues (based on ticket sales and attendance) in the U.S. since 2006. In addition, the venue was ranked in the Top 15 for the first quarter of 2012.
In reflecting on the Ballroom's success, Chad Rodgers shared that "I feel like Hunter and I, with our youth, provided a lot of insight and fresh perspective that season veterans (at booking rooms like this) wouldn't have."
The result of that perspective is a concert calendar that consistently draws from all corners of the talent pool, bringing both legendary acts and newcomers and touching on everything from classic, modern and indie rock to country and Red Dirt, Hip-Hop, Christian and Dubstep. By delving into all categories, the Rodgers' brothers have been able to not only keep the schedule fresh and exciting, but also provide something for all audiences.
Perhaps more impressive is just how much is accomplished by the two gentlemen and a small staff. With concert production headed up by Brad Harris and a tightly run bar staff keeping the drinks flowing every night, Chad and Hunter are buried in the operations of the business. Both brothers are involved in bookings while Hunter Rodgers carries most of the responsibilities with posters, marketing and running the box office and Chad handles most of the contracting.
"We do a lot for two people," Chad Rodgers shared. "Sometimes I don't know how we've been able to do it for almost nine years ... but we love it."
More than That
Although it might seem odd that a doctor might be invested in a concert venue, when looking back at Dr. Rodgers history, it's really not. Sure, he's a prominent Neurosurgeon who specializes in spinal cases and still actively practices in Tulsa, working several cases a week. Looking back, however, he shares that "Music is something I've always loved and have always been around, both outside and in surgery. ..."
"I've experienced it, because I saw it in high school," Chad Rodgers commented. "At that time, he was still doing brain surgeries and I got to observe -- and he had music playing while he was operating."
Even further back, however, Dr. Rodgers shared that "One of my first jobs, back in 1970, I purchased all of the records and tapes for Shopper's Fair at 21st and Sheridan. I'd have to guess how much to buy and started thinking about what music appealed to people even back then."
Even so, Dr. Rodgers leaves the bookings and operations to his sons. "People will ask me how things are going at the Cain's and I just tell them you'd have to ask Chad and Hunter," he said. "I still love music, but I leave that to them."
Ultimately, he said, "I provided a seed idea and the seed money. They've done almost all of the work."
Even so, the Rodgers family is busy with more than just Cain's Ballroom, even if it is a primary focus. Dr. Rodgers has continued to put his money and support into Tulsa and Northeastern Oklahoma, having invested in Dripping Springs Marina and Grand Lake and acting as a silent investor in at least one other location in town.
Alice Rodgers keeps quite busy as well. As owner and proprietor of Ida Red (3336 S. Peoria Ave.), she is also busy with the retail side of the business. "Ida Red started out as an outlet and extension of Cain's Ballroom," she said. "We started out selling tickets and t-shirts and little chachskis, but then it started growing. We started selling more T's and pop and candy and little things."
"It just kept growing," she continued, "and now we've got things in the works to put a mini Cain's museum in the back with a timeline and pictures and the Cain's story."
Operating the store isn't Mrs. Rodgers' only concern however. If you're in this family, you have to love music and she is no exception. Even more of her time is taken up by her participation on the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame board and her involvement with the Oklahoma Fiddler's Hall of Fame.
Even Chad and Hunter Rodgers keep busy with ventures outside of Cain's Ballroom, and Chad manages to do so while additionally acting as husband to Lindsey Rodgers and father to two adorable daughters, Maryn and Marlee.
Operating under the moniker of Doc Roc Productions, they are expanding their reach beyond Cain's Ballroom, bringing artists like Avett Brothers, Bon Iver and Pretty Lights to the Brady Theater this year and just recently announcing a Doc Roc produced concert by Bassnectar at the Tulsa Convention Center this coming October 11. Doc Roc has also begun booking outside of Tulsa, by producing shows by Casey Donahew in both Oklahoma City and Stillwater earlier this year.
"There are a lot of things we bring to Cain's and right now we do about 90-95 percent of our show ourselves," Chad Hunter said, "but we also do things outside of Cain's Ballroom. Ultimately, we want to become not just a venue operator, but a true promotions company and we're starting to do that."
Additional plans are still under development, including a Cain's Ballroom Museum and Historical Society, a concept that was initiated in 2008, with plans to build a state of the art interactive museum in the Brady Arts District in downtown Tulsa. According to Dr. Rodgers, however, the museum still needs financing and seed money and he can't be involved or on the board for the museum do to his investment in the ballroom itself. With the new Hardesty Arts Center and Woody Guthrie Museum currently under construction, it seems that the Cain's museum would be a logical addition and natural next step in the development of the Brady Arts District.
Although many people often see the Rodgers family as the people behind the revival of Cain's Ballroom (which is a noble feat in itself), a deeper look shows something more. Operating as a family, the Rodgers' have been cornerstones in the revitalization of downtown Tulsa and the Brady Arts District, years before recent developments began.
When considering this, it's hard not to hear Dr. Rodgers' sentiment from the middle of a conversation about the Ballroom itself and let it stand on its own merits. "For sure we love music, but we also love Tulsa and we love the Brady Arts District."
Fortunately, they saw the promise in our downtown development and were ahead of the curve, leading others in what is now exploding in the Brady Arts and Blue Dome districts.
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