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"It's very similar to South Congress 15 years ago when I took the Continental over," says Wertheimer. "It's a little seedy right now, but downtown Houston is on fire. I feel like we're at the right place at the right time."
After a couple of hours, Wertheimer and I are near the Loop in his pickup. As we exit Highway 59 North and cruise into Midtown, Wertheimer points out some of the establishments near the Houston Continental Club that already give the area much of the same funky but chic flavor that surrounds his Austin spot: Fusion Café's soul food and an Original New Orleans Po' Boy restaurant. Wertheimer knows the area well. His family owned property in the Fourth and Fifth wards when he was young.
We pull up beside the almost-finished club, and, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it's déjà vu all over again. For one thing, a duplicate of the Continental Club sign hangs above the front door. Inside, there are more familiar accouterments: a long wooden bar to the left, a stage front and center and about three-fourths of the way back into the room, and a passage to the rear pool room and lounge beside it on the left. It's almost as if the original Continental Club were inflatable, and someone collapsed it, brought it here and blew even more air into it. The venue definitely has a feel of '50s moderne for the new millennium, just like the Austin club.
Gordon beams like a proud papa. "It feels good," he says. "We're trying to take, obviously, from the best club I love to be at, the Continental Club in Austin, and go from there. And take from a few things I've seen around." Gordon's bandmate David Beebe, a onetime Fabulous Satellite Lounge manager, is delighted by the marquee he has constructed for the window above the front door. A Houston native and UT graduate, Beebe is the club's assistant manager and, like Gordon, an investor.
The new Continental even has Wertheimer mulling over the idea of further expansion. But first, there's not just the question of whether the Houston club will fly, but how it will fit into the current scene. "I'm not coming to Houston to show people how things should be done," he says. He adds with self-mocking irony: "I'm coming here to sell some drinks.
"I'm not coming down here to take bands away from clubs where these bands have been playing. We don't need to do that. If we can cater to the people we cater to in Austin with the number of clubs there are in Austin, I don't think we're gonna hurt anyone in Houston. There are far less clubs in Houston, and it's much more competitive in Austin, I think. And there are more people in Houston."
With his Houston-area roots and local partners and work ethic, Wertheimer doesn't feel like an Austin interloper. He's putting his money and muscle and sweat where his mouth is, just like he did in the capital city (where his neighborhood commitment extends across the street to the fashionably revitalized San Jose Motel, in which he is an investor).
What Wertheimer is trying to do is simple: He's trying to create a club that feels as right and real as those nightspots he first stepped into more than 20 years ago.
In 1976, Wertheimer, a native of Rosenberg, traveled in the opposite direction on Highway 71 to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned an accounting degree. Much of his useful education came after hours, at legendary Austin music venues like the Armadillo World Headquarters, Soap Creek Saloon and Rome Inn, home of the famous barbecue chef C-Boy Parks. "That's when I fell in love with this whole music business, bar business kinda thing," Wertheimer says. "I dreamed back then that one day I wanted to have a little club. I begged and begged and begged C-Boy to let me work for him at the Rome Inn. Finally he let me work there about six months before it closed, bartend to barback to whatever needed to be done. It was my senior year of school. I was infected with that whole scene."
After graduation, Wertheimer worked for a large accounting firm and later a real estate company. After buying a portable smoker, he joined forces with Parks in a catering venture. Their partnership eventually anchored itself at Ski Shores, a 1950s-era joint on Lake Austin that after once closing was reopened as a bustling music and barbecue outlet in the mid-1980s. At the same time, the Continental Club, which started out as one of the city's snazziest nightclubs in 1957, had mutated into Austin's first topless bar and later, among other incarnations, a punk rock club. When the drinking age in Texas was raised to 21, the punk club's proprietors decamped to Liberty Lunch across the river, and Wertheimer and some of his partners and pals took the place over.
At the time, during Austin's late-1980s real estate bust, Wertheimer was barely hanging on to his realty job. And at the Continental Club, things at first seemed dubious. "My partners wanted to be everything for everyone," Wertheimer recalls. "We had a restaurant. We had lunch shows, dinner shows, night shows." Wertheimer's job consisted of "having to come in every afternoon to write checks to cover stuff," and it was taking its toll. "So I went in there one day and said, 'Everybody out.' Most of my money's in this thing. I'll get in here, and if this thing fails, I'm the one who's responsible. Basically I started buying everybody else out. For the first two or three years, it was really slim going, just trying to keep the doors open."