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It's 10 p.m. on an August Saturday night at the Continental Zydeco Lounge and the band, Jabo and the Southside Playboys, has just finished setting up. By all rights and traditions, some serious action should be about to begin. The old Continental feels comfortable and festive, just as in years past. The floor still gives a little when the waitress carries beers past your table, and the ceiling, which is still supported by aluminum-foil-wrapped posts, glows with red jalapeno Christmas lights, cheerily defiant of the season.
And once Jabo has taken up his squeezebox and begun belting his bluesy, urban zydeco, the dancing begins. A tall, droopy man shuffles across the floor like a fast-stepping question mark, and the music is so tight and rhythmic that you have to move, even if you're only dancing with your beer. But the dance floor is far from full; at this moment, there are barely a dozen patrons swaying to the sounds. Continental owner Doris McClendon, tall, thin and newly widowed, sighs and takes a melancholy drag on her cigarette. "I'm glad you saw this with your own eyes," she says. "It shouldn't be like this on a Saturday night."
No, it shouldn't, even though the initial gathering increases gradually to 40. To just break even, McClendon and the Continental would need 150 to 200 paying customers this evening, and they're not going to get them, just as they haven't gotten them for months. There's just no way around it, McClendon admits as she listens to Jabo's accordion-bounce wash across the Continental's empty spaces. After more than four decades as a zydeco launching pad and shrine, the history of the Continental Zydeco Lounge may be drawing to a close.
Of course, bars come and bars go. It's the nature of the business. But some bars burrow their way into a town's collective consciousness, becoming more icon than icehouse. And when those bars are shuttered ... well, there's more to protecting a city's culture than slapping a "historic" designation on some downtown office complex. God knows Houston's cultural life has suffered some cruel hits during the past decade -- goodbye, Shamrock; farewell, Gilley's -- or even the past months -- adios, dear Red Lion. But even among such hallowed names, the Continental Zydeco Lounge (is there a sweeter, suaver name in this whole town?) is a special case, and would be too much to lose.
The glory days of the Continental were in the '40s and '50s, when people had to line up to get in for a blast of the then-raw, young Lonnie Mitchell, a stalwart of the Houston zydeco scene, or, better still, Clifton Chenier, the soon-to-be zydeco king whose legend was just beginning. Houston and the Continental were integral to Chenier's career; it was here that he learned to graft zydeco and the blues, and Houston was the first city where his essentially countrified music found favor. Chenier's last birthday party and his last Houston-area performance were at the Continental.
Doris McClendon has worked at the Continental on and off since she was eight. Her grandparents opened the hall; under them, the Continental served up music four nights a week, instead of the current two, and even on Sunday and Monday nights they had people lined up in the streets.
After her grandparents passed the club along to McClendon's parents, they leased it out to Lonnie Mitchell. Then, in the early '80s, McClendon took it back and kept the club afloat even during the bust, when she and her late husband, Ray, spent "$5,000 out of our own pocket" to keep the doors open. Now that Ray has died, McClendon has a harder time confronting the Continental's problems, but the place holds too much meaning for her to let it go. "I take a lot of pride," she says about her club. "You got to. You got to put your whole soul and mind into it."
Ironically, as McClendon is struggling to keep a zydeco landmark alive, the music itself is enjoying a boom. During the first break, Jabo relaxes in front of the hall and says, "I played Billy Blues last Tuesday, and it was like this." He holds his hands together, fingers crossed as if in prayer, to demonstrate just how full the house was. "Nothing dead about zydeco. Something dead about the Continental."
Even so, this is the third time Jabo has played the Continental in the past two weeks, a break in his policy of not appearing in the same place twice in one month. "Doris is a friend," he says. "I'm trying to help her."
According to Jabo, McClendon can't afford many bands anymore. "Just last Saturday she called me and said nobody else would play," he says. There's more money elsewhere. The Catholic church dances offer $500 or $600 a night, as opposed to the Continental's $300, and in recent years venues that cater mainly to whites have entered the fray, driving fees up even higher.
Mindful of the club's place in Houston's music history, Jabo is working at "$200-$300" below his usual fee, and he winds up paying the band partly out of his own pocket. "I been making a good living on zydeco," he says. "A real good living. Now I'm just trying to keep these doors open."