The Cabaret Dance Hall, located at 801 Main Street in Bandera (the town that bills itself as “The Cowboy Capital of the World”), served as a musical landmark in the community for approximately seven decades. The original owner, Jerry Lucias, opened the venue in 1936, and through the years it was used exclusively as a dance hall. Situated fifty miles northwest of San Antonio on State Highway 16, the Cabaret was a popular spot for local ranching people and for military personnel stationed throughout the San Antonio area. In the 1930s a typical “night on the town” in Bandera often involved dancing and drinking at the Cabaret, as well as other local venues. During the 1940s and 1950s local dude ranches often brought their guests to town on horseback to enjoy live music at the Cabaret.
Over the years the Cabaret changed ownership several times and underwent a series of renovations. In 1944 Ralph Mitchell purchased the hall for $28,000 before selling it to Arkey Blue in the 1960s. In the 1940s workers expanded the Cabaret from its original 1,250 square feet to 13,000 square feet by pouring concrete in a large horseshoe shape around the older dance floor area. Calvin Chapman took over ownership of the venue in the 1980s but then sold it to Bandera Entertainment. In 1993 the wooden roof was replaced with a metal roof, and the height of the building was increased to forty feet, although the original bar was kept.
Thurman Love purchased the Cabaret in 1998 and updated it both physically and artistically. His policy of “No Nashville ‘Hat Acts’ or Top Forty Country” allowed the club to flourish as a venue for more independent-minded Americana singer–songwriters. Local resident and Americana pioneer Robert Earl Keen played the Cabaret’s grand re-opening on October 10, 1998. Matthew Franek purchased the Cabaret in 2004 from Mary Schenk. Franek and his wife, Kimberley, along with “The Boss” (two-year-old Savannah), attempted to broaden the appeal of the Cabaret by booking shows that attracted both older and younger crowds.
The Cabaret, with a capacity of 1,200, hosted a remarkable array of performers throughout its history. Bob Wills was the first to play at the Cabaret, and he was followed by many others, including Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn, Jim Reeves, Ray Price, Hank Thompson, Roger Miller, Darrell McCall, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Dale Watson, Don Walser, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Gary P. Nunn, the Derailers, Asleep at the Wheel, the Time Warp Hands, and local favorites, Bruce and Charlie Robison. Willie Nelson, who played bass and drums at the Cabaret for Johnny Bush, lived in Bandera for a short time during the early 1970s, and he returned in 1990 to film a show for his “Outlaw Satellite Network” with special guests Billy Joe Shaver and Johnny Bush. Doug Sahm broadcast a live show from the Cabaret, and Johnny Gimble made a recording for charity there in 2004.
In the early 2000s the Cabaret booked a variety of musical groups intended to appeal to a broad audience. One night each month was reserved for Texas swing, while other weekends featured newer country and Americana acts. Live bands performed every Friday and Saturday evening, and the venue hosted an open mic and pool tournament on Thursday evenings. By the mid-2000s, however, the Cabaret was closed and vacant.
In 2013 new owner Steve Ball began extensive renovations of the club, which included tearing down the structure to its central metal frame, bringing it up to modern building code standards, and recovering the wooden dance floor, which had largely rotted from drainage problems. Ball planned to eventually make the facility available for dances, receptions, and other catered events. In 2014 the venue, still closed and undergoing renovations, received the Bandera Music History Project Hall of Fame’s Legendary Venue award.