Spreading Its Roots
Through the back door of Austin's Continental Club, Steve Wertheimer hauls four stacked jumbo plastic garbage cans. The club owner loads his freight into the bed of his pickup truck and fastens everything down with a rope. Rolled-up blueprints and construction checklists are nestled on the dashboard as we pull away from the curb. Soon as we hit Highway 71, heading east, Wertheimer's focus seems to shift from Austin to our destination, Houston, the location for his second Continental Club. It's already June, and he and his cohorts are scurrying to get the place open in time. "I don't know if it is possible to be jealous of something that belongs to you, that you have an interest in, but it's a great room," he says, anticipating the thrill of showing this writer, something of a Continental Club regular, the even larger, 299-person capacity venue in Houston.
With his bristling gray coif, generally natty night attire and taste for cherry classic cars, Wertheimer is the Silver Fox of South Austin. Yet unlike an effete nightclub entrepreneur, like House of Blues and Hard Rock Cafe mogul Isaac Tigrett, Wertheimer knows his way around a beer cooler, and has swung a hammer or three in making his Austin club what it is. Tigrett may be a noted collector of rock memorabilia and folk art, but Wertheimer is the one who's actually preserving our culture, even reviving it. At the Continental Club, he reinvigorates an American spirit and lifestyle instead of putting it in display cases. During Wertheimer's reign the past 14 years, the Continental Club has developed a distinctive culture, from the club's Eisenhower-era logo to the classic cars parked out front, and has acted as an anchor in the revival of the South Congress Avenue strip on which it resides. It's a place just big enough to host marquee touring acts and just small enough to feel like a neighborhood bar. On a good night, with the right act and crowd, it is roots-rock heaven.
Bringing this Austin phenomenon to Houston seems a bold move. "We ought to be able to pull off in Houston what we pulled off in Austin," Wertheimer says. "Main Street is like Congress Avenue. It's not quite as wide as Congress is, but it's a grand old street. I think the same thing is going to happen in Houston that happened in Austin. It's just so close to downtown."
The idea of opening a Continental Club in Houston has been in the back of Wertheimer's mind for a while. Wertheimer credits his friends local real estate developer Bob Schultz and semiretired rock and roll pianist and Continental Club manager Pete Gordon with making the notion a reality.
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Schultz, whose RHS Interests owns a stake in both the club and the Main Street building that houses it, was involved in the Houston nightspot and restaurant 8.0, along with trendy Dallas nightclub king Shannon Wynne. Schultz, like Wertheimer, is a University of Texas grad who frequently returns to Austin, where he was once a partner in the Sixth Street bar 606. "I kept trying to get Steve to come to Houston with the Continental," he says. "It's such a fantastic place."
By the late '90s the Continental Club was enjoying a measure of stability, thanks in part to Gordon. After six albums and as many years on the road playing keyboards with Mojo Nixon, Gordon had married and started a family, and he wanted to spend more time at home. Wertheimer hired him as club manager, but after three years into the gig, "Pete wanted to advance," Wertheimer says. "The only way that was going to happen was for me to either quit doing what I was doing and find something else to do and hand it over to Pete, or expand. Because he was hitting his head on the ceiling," says Wertheimer. "We started talking about this Houston thing again. And Pete said, 'If you're interested in doing this thing in Houston, we'll move there.' And I was like, 'If you'll move to Houston, I'll open a place there.' "
Schultz was ready when Wertheimer called. A specialist in renovation and restoration who lectures at Rice University, the Houston developer had his eye on a number of buildings that might suit a Continental Club twin. "We went down on a Saturday afternoon to look at places," Wertheimer says. "Bob had done his homework. It was obvious that he was ready to go on this thing. He had about four or five buildings in different locations he wanted us to look at. And this building was the first one we looked at. Basically I fell in love with it. It had this great potential."
The structure at 1300 Main Street originally housed a pharmacy, which appealed to Wertheimer's hometown sensibilities. His father had run the local drugstore in Rosenberg. (The elder Wertheimers now live in Houston, near the Galleria.) The spot at 1300 Main was most recently Guy's News, which was "one of the few places you could get a Sunday New York Times in Houston," says Schultz. But as Midtown slid into neglect, the space the Houston Continental now occupies fell vacant.
"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."
The now-bustling Sixth Street entertainment district downtown was just beginning to hit its stride, and South Austin was one of the funkier sides of town, a mix of low-rent Anglos and low-riding Chicanos as well as graceful old neighborhoods like Travis Heights, just behind the Continental Club. The stretch of Congress south of the river was populated by thrift-store patrons by day and cheap hookers by night. As for the club, Wertheimer says, it had no identity at all. "Part of the problem was that it was a punk club when we took it over. It took a couple of years to convince people, hey, it's okay to come down here."
A Continental Club personality was right under Wertheimer's nose. "The place had been there forever. It was kind of a retro place," he says. "We kind of got back to featuring that kind of music." Over time, a post-'50s culture developed in and eventually around the club. The venue became a place where the down-home folks could dress up, albeit in thrift-store duds.
The music, however, was what kept things running. For a number of years in the mid-1990s, guitar genius Junior Brown was a Sunday-night regular until he hit the national scene. Wertheimer also landed two venerable Austin East Side blues acts, pianist Grey Ghost and T.D. Bell & Erbie Bowser, as happy-hour attractions. Toni Price signed on for the Tuesday early-evening residency, which quickly became known as "Hippie Hour," and which has regularly drawn a waiting line out front to the free show. The burgeoning Austin rebel country scene found a welcoming home here. Even the recent swing revival, which swept Austin in the late '90s, first began to blossom at the Continental, thanks to acts like the Naughty Ones and 8 1/2 Souvenirs (both of which released debut CDs on the club's label, Continental Records). Touring acts playing roots rock, real country, blues, rockabilly, swing and related material were booked. The Continental became part of the roots circuit. And in a city known for its original music clubs, even though most of them were scraping by financially, the Continental Club thrived, its complementary mixture of ambience and audience lending the venue a distinctive flavor.
"That whole identity thing is what we are taking to Houston," says Wertheimer. "I think there's a pretty large batch of those same type of people in Houston who are dying for a place like this to finally open up, where they can hang and call it their home."
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