Come 1985, gay Montrose was booming. Gays made up only about 19 percent of Montrose's population, Hill estimated, but the flavor and politics of the neighborhood were distinctly rainbow. That's when 32-year-old Charles Armstrong blew into town, nightclubs in tow. Rumors abound about how Armstrong managed to get control of three bars at so young an age, with so little income. Armstrong's version is that he had worked under a successful gay nightclub operator in Dallas as general manager of Texas operations, and he purchased the three bars located in Houston from his boss by selling his countertop vending machine business. The bars were an instant hit. JR's Bar & Grill, Montrose Mining Company and Heaven (now South Beach) soon turned Armstrong into Houston's largest employer of the gay population. In 2004, he added another club, Meteor, to his portfolio.
When Armstrong discusses his businesses, he never compares them to neighboring bars, whose existence he rarely acknowledges. Instead, he always likens them to Neiman Marcus, and sometimes Bank of America.
"There's three things in my employee handbook that I request of every employee, as well as for myself, and that's honesty, loyalty and professionalism," he says. "Those are three virtues that I just demand." From the start of Armstrong's reign, signing up with him was a marriage-like agreement, whereby employees swore to forsake all others. Whenever a new gay bar popped up, his employees were forbidden to go.
Most bars never lasted for long competing against Armstrong. He ran the only businesses in town that guaranteed a fat wad of cash at the end of the night. It was a good reason for employees to keep staying out of other bars. "I think people would rather work for a strong leader than a weakling," Armstrong says. "You might resent that strength...but you respect it."
In the late '80s, AIDS began to decimate the population of Montrose. People stopped coming to the neighborhood to eat out of fear they would catch something from gay waiters. Funeral homes didn't want to take the bodies of dead men. In response to the health crisis, Armstrong set up a fund-raiser to help his employees defray the cost of medical care. Staff performed in drag shows at the bars, and all proceeds went into a pot of money called the Employee Emergency Fund. Armstrong would give out money from the fund to help a sick employee buy groceries, pay rent, or afford hospital bills. Beneficiaries were expected to pay the money back. "It was a bridge to transition someone into getting their health restored," Armstrong says. "That way it'll be there for someone else." More often than not, Armstrong says, employees didn't live long enough to pay it back.
George Konar, 56, is tall with snowy hair and green eyes. He worked for Armstrong for 23 years, and he's a self-described blabbermouth. If there's anyone who could dish on Armstrong, it's him. But he says he owes Armstrong his life.
Konar remembers the dark days when men living in the 77006 couldn't get health insurance without taking a blood test. A positive test for AIDS meant no coverage. Armstrong signed up for expensive high-risk health insurance, which covered his full-time employees regardless of their AIDS status. He paid half, and the employees paid the other half. "If you had insurance, you lived. If you didn't, you died," Konar says. "We were lucky — we worked for Charles, and we lived."
As AIDS tore through the neighborhood, the gay community flocked to the nightclubs for a reprieve from sickness and death. But even there, they weren't safe. In 1991, a young gay man named Paul Broussard and two friends were stopped by a car full of high school kids from The Woodlands. The boys asked for directions to Heaven, Armstrong's nightclub. When Broussard told them how to get there, the boys jumped out of the car and chased the men with knives and nail-studded planks. His friends got away, but Broussard was attacked. Hours later at the hospital, he died.
The gay community rallied around Broussard's murder, and Armstrong was a key player in getting the city to pay attention, says Konar. "It's one thing for a bunch of gays to march, but if you don't know who to call and why we're marching, it's just a parade," he says. "Charles was the one who was able to get all the right people to stand up." This summer will be the 20th anniversary of Broussard's death, and Armstrong is organizing a memorial for victims of bullying and hate crimes on one of his vacant lots.