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.

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.

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Rob Patterson