By Bryan Kirk
Entrepreneur turns his passion project into a major force in Texas nightlife scene
Edwin Cabaniss (B.B.A. '91) is living his best life right now, but then life has always been something of an amazing and wonderful journey for the native East Texan, who now calls Dallas home.
Ten years ago, Cabaniss left a career in finance to concentrate on a passion project and began Kessler Presents, a concert promotion company that has become a formidable player in the entertainment and nightlife scene in three major Texas markets. Cabaniss bought and refurbished the Kessler Theater, transforming the historic Dallas landmark into an updated live music venue and performing arts space. Later, Kessler Presents ventured into Houston with the Heights Theater. He also began promoting shows in Austin.
Not surprisingly, Cabaniss has put several thousand miles on his SUV, bouncing around the state for business meetings and the occasional R&R. Cabaniss owns a 235-acre farm in a rural area strategically located between the three cities. During one of his many treks across the Lone Star State, Cabaniss shared his journey from his East Texas roots to his current position as a live music entrepreneur.
This fifth-generation Texan is a byproduct of Sunday church services and Friday night lights — what many consider a proper Texas upbringing. That sort of thing just clicked with Cabaniss, who starred on the football field and the baseball diamond in Longview.
But there was always a creative side to that hometown, too. “There have been a number of highly successful creatives that I grew up around. My next-door neighbor, Porter Howell, formed and still fronts the band Little Texas. He’s now a Nashville songwriter with many hits to his credit, including ‘God Bless Texas.’
“My childhood friend and classmate, comedian Rodney Carrington, is still the funniest person I know. Of course, Matthew McConaughey’s work speaks for itself,” Cabaniss says of his fellow Longview High graduate.
When the time came for college, Cabaniss entertained his share of athletic scholarship offers and visited a few campuses. He wasn’t drawn to any one place, but all that changed when he arrived at Texas State University. He says he could barely fathom the idea that he could score a baseball scholarship at such an idyllic place and get to do something he loved. “When I stepped on the campus for the first time,” Cabaniss recalls, “it just felt right. With the new library being built, a solid business school, and a very competitive baseball program, I knew I had found the right university for me. I signed my scholarship the next day.”
Cabaniss focused on his studies and followed the lead of his father and uncles, who had careers in insurance, accounting, and banking. He also fostered a healthy entrepreneurial spirit.
After graduating with a degree in marketing, he moved to Dallas to start his career. Along the way, he earned a master of business administration in finance and his analyst designation from the Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania.
He had done well in his two decades in finance, but advising others who were looking to turn their own dreams into something concrete always piqued the entrepreneurial side of his soul. “I started thinking to myself, ‘I can do that.’ ”
Cabaniss, who was then on the cusp of 40, started looking for a new direction. “I tell people when they walk into the Kessler Theater, they are standing inside of my midlife crisis,” he jokes.
He’d seen the Kessler many times before. The theater portion of the building was boarded up and dormant, quietly decaying for years. At first, it was a real estate investment, but things began to align. His hope was to revitalize an urban area that had long been neglected. By keeping leases with the longtime tenants and filling the vacancies with others who shared his vision to honor the community, Cabaniss was able to maintain the authenticity and culture.
The Kessler, which once counted singing cowboy actor Gene Autry among its owners, opened in 1942 and was among the last of the art deco theaters built. It was a special building with a storied history, and Cabaniss wanted to ensure it had a future. “It became the place to attract people back to our neighborhood — the creative class,” he says.
The Kessler is considered by many as one of the best small music venues in America, but it also hosts children’s classes, charitable events, worship services, and private events. Although it holds a wide range of programming, two factors are consistent — the venue is a destination itself and the house is usually full.
Cabaniss and his wife, Lisa, purchased the Heights Theater in Houston in 2016. Like its sister venue, the Heights has won numerous preservation awards and packs the house. The Heights’ daily operations are almost exclusively run by Houstonians, and it has become a vital presence within the community. In the days following Hurricane Harvey, it also served as a base camp kitchen.
Last year, Kessler Presents expanded to Austin, staging shows at historic venues such as Antone’s Nightclub and the Paramount Theatre. The company has built a Texas triangle, giving regional and national touring artists the ability to play three of the largest markets in the state on consecutive nights in some of the state’s most iconic and picturesque venues. With more than 400 events this year, Kessler Presents is now considered one of the largest independent promoters in the country.
A decade later, Cabaniss credits his home and work families with this creative success. “I think I speak for everyone on our team that this is not just a job, but a passion and a way of life.” Much like when he first stepped on the university campus, Cabaniss finds it hard to believe that he has been fortunate enough to launch a business and new career path from what used to be his daydreams. “It’s been a beautiful journey, and there’s no end in sight.” ✪