When I ventured out to Neon Boots on Saturday, August 24, I was ready for a crowd, but I wasn't quite anticipating what I found.
As I made my way down Hempstead, it was suddenly apparent that Neon Boots was not only a huge success, but the biggest bar opening I've ever been to.
People were seen crossing the street to get to the bar much like crowds do on a Saturday night on Washington Ave. And really, that's almost where it felt like I was as I pulled up to see cars lining either side of Hempstead Hwy. between 34th and Antoine (a nearly one mile stretch of road) with more patrons finding places to park on side streets.
It turns out that an estimated 2,300 patrons filed in and out of the club on Saturday, trying to catch a glimpse of what Neon Boots was all about.
"We were set up to accommodate about 1,000," said Justin Galloway, Neon Boots' Office Manager and Public Relations spokesman. "But luckily we've gotten so much mainstream press that the line to get in the door was backed up to Hempstead."
The bar was packed full on Saturday night and when Neon Boots' staff took to their Facebook page on Sunday to apologize, nobody seemed to have any complaints for what seemed like understandable, minor details.
Among the things they promised to fix? Adding fans, beer tubs and extra bartenders in order to better handle the masses that flocked to their bar. But if the biggest issue on opening night was that Neon Boots had bigger crowds than anticipated, it seems like they've already made a name for themselves.
When I returned on Sunday evening, things had simmered down to a decent-sized crowd.
Neon Boots opened its doors inside the same historical building that was once known as the Esquire Ballroom, a place where country legends like Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline got their start in music. It was also the first known country bar where an African American musician performed, when Faron Young threatened to pull out of his performance if his touring support, Charley Pride, wasn't kept on the bill.
Needless to say, the ballroom left some big boots to fill when it closed its doors in 1995. And throughout the years, others have tried and failed to turn it into a quinceañera hall, a gay tejano bar and a boxing venue. But Neon Boots was made to carry the torch, with its title as both Houston's largest LGBT bar, as well as Texas' biggest country LGBT bar.
Lucky for me, I was only halfway through my whiskey cocktail before I was asked to dance by a charming woman named Debbie Diane.
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By the time we made it onto the dance floor, I'd found out she is one of six partners who helped bring Neon Boots to life. And though I apologized for my two left feet, she gently reassured me that I'm not as bad as I think I am, and with a few dance lessons on Thursday evenings, I'd be ready to tear up the dance floor.
In addition to Diane, Jim Daily, Rodney Myers, Jim Moore, Ron McIeroy and Jim Gerhold operate Neon Boots, with the help of General Manager, Robert Harwood.
As the story goes, all six partners met at Brazos River Bottom - Houston's original LGBT country bar. But when the bar closed its doors earlier this year after 35 years, each of the six partners was looking to open another country bar for their community, and after reconnecting through Facebook, found a way to make their vision come to life.
And as I watch Diane's eyes light up as she line dances to Garth Brooks, it's apparent that Neon Boots is a true labor of love.
"We're filling a niche," said Galloway, as he motions to the bar. "There are no other country western bars for the gay community, and I don't know if there could be a better place for this."
Of course, he has a point, and much of it was made on Saturday evening.
For all of Houston's progression, most gay businesses seem to stay within the confines of Montrose. But Galloway says that's a thing of the past.
"We have a lot of clients coming up to us, thanking us for opening a bar that's more local to them," said Galloway. "Montrose has become a little yuppie, and not everyone can afford to live there, so people are starting to move more northwest to these up and coming neighborhoods."
Because it's situated in the middle of Oak Forest, Timbergrove and Spring Branch, Neon Boots managed to pull in customers of all ages, who came from all over town and all different walks of life for its four-day opening weekend. And though it's considered a gay bar, the staff at Neon Boots stresses that it is "straight friendly," and assures patrons that all will be served with the same level of respect and appreciation.
"I'd say about 40 percent of our clientele was straight this weekend," said Galloway. "And most were wonderful, but we did have a few that didn't realize what they were walking in to."
Which is why preconceived notions should be left at home.
Sure, the bar will be instating a "Drag Night" on Sundays, but Neon Boots is no different than any other country bar I've been to.
With blue and red painted walls, aluminum siding and leather seating areas, the only differences between Neon Boots and other country bars are that majority of the patrons are gay, and there are just as many Rainbow flags hanging on the wall as there are Texas flags. But the men still wear Wranglers, the beer is still ice cold, and there is just as much hospitality.
"In Houston, a lot of country bars discriminate, or they just appeal to a different crowd than what you'll find here," said Michelle Thompson, a patron. "But here, we can all be ourselves without any pretenses."
Neon Boots currently has three bars set up for service, which includes the bar inside of the more low-key Esquire Room, which pays homage to the building's history. Additionally, the bar has kept the original stage (which is retractable to accommodate its needs,) as well as a regulation-size ballroom floor, a few pool tables and ample seating area.
And that's just what they've got now.
According to the Neon Boots team, there are already plans in motion to add a Gay Bingo night by October (Daily owns Big Tex Bingo on Veterans Memorial Dr.), a mechanical bull and live music on Fridays. Add in plans for sand volleyball and horseshoe pits to the back patio area, and the bases seem to be covered. Of course all upgrades take planning and time, but Diane promises that Neon Boots will be "constantly evolving into something bigger and better."
Until then, the bar's DJ, Lorenzo, might be the best in Houston with his well-paced mixture of country and pop hits from the past few decades.
So if you've got the urge to dance, scoot over to Neon Boots. Everyone is welcome, and no matter what, it seems destined to become one of the best country bars in Houston.
Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon 11410 Hempstead Hwy (713) 677-0828 Official Website
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