A Room With a View
The Continental Club Comes to Houston
"It basically feels like a grown-up version of what's in Austin." Steve Wertheimer is standing on the debris-strewn platform that in a few weeks -- knock on plywood -- will host the likes of Mojo Nixon, Jon Dee Graham, Jimmie Vaughan, and maybe even the Jayhawks. It's soon to be the stage of the Houston Continental Club, which, provided all goes according to plan, will bring a touch of South Congress to the nation's fourth-largest city. With 50-foot ceilings, 4,300 square feet, 25 tons of air conditioning, and a 28-foot bar, the building at 3700 Main certainly has the potential to be a nightclub emporium the likes of which Wertheimer's beloved Austin establishment only hints at. He expects the new club's capacity to be in the 300-325 range, compared to the Austin Continental's occupancy limit of 191. At the same time, he readily admits his main architectural mission for the Houston club is "to make this, when you walk in here, feel kinda like you're in the club in Austin."
Kinda. Currently, the building looks like a cross between a high-school wood shop and what it is -- a structure erected in the late 1920s that housed at various times a drugstore (with soda fountain), liquor store, and most recently Guy's News, a newsstand/bookstore that, Wertheimer notes, called 3700 Main home for 20 years.
"There's been a lot of people in here for the last 80 years," he says, "so we've had to do undo a lot of stuff."
Sheetrock is nonexistent, exposed pipes are everywhere, and there's a gaping hole in the ceiling. As of today, May 13, most of the wiring and plumbing fixtures have yet to be installed. Wertheimer and Continental Houston managing general partner Pete Gordon, who managed the Austin club for three years, have a punch list several pages long of things yet to be done: build the walk-in, seal the concrete, resurface the dance floor, remount the front door (and remove the burglar bars), install a safe and security system, and so forth. There's also the matter of procuring pool tables, lights, a sound system, tables, chairs, barstools, glasses, and artwork.
"Obviously, there's a lot of work to be done," Wertheimer acknowledges. "But this place looks remarkable today compared to what it looked like the day we walked in here. It was a mess."
Wertheimer and his partners, including Gordon, El Orbits singer David Beebe, and Houston real-estate broker Bob Schultz, closed on the building in February and began remodeling the old newsstand in March. A month or so out from their projected mid-June opening date, and even with all the mess, the space should already seem familiar to any local 8 1/2 Souvenirs or Toni Price fan; the stage, sound booth, bar, and waitress station are all situated exactly where they are on the South Congress Continental. The only real difference in the Houston main room, besides its vintage terrazzo floors, will be an elevated VIP area behind the sound booth.
The room behind the stage will naturally be the "pool room," only this one is easily three or four times the size of its Austin counterpart. Wertheimer plans for at least three billiards tables, a full-service bar, and a "killer jukebox" for this room, which he envisions as fully functional on its own regardless of what's going on up front.
"Once we get in here and get things going, get the logistics figured out, the nocturnal behavior of Houstonians -- if there's some nights it doesn't make sense to do music -- we'll close that front room off," he says. "You'll enter the club right here" -- he points to a door opening onto Winbern Street -- "and this is just gonna be a bad-ass little neighborhood bar."
Certain other provisions indicate the Houston Continental will be a bad-ass big-city nightclub as well. A nifty passageway behind the stage, underneath the main room's mammoth AC units, leads straight out onto Winbern, thus enabling musicians to tote their gear directly from the street to backstage instead of lugging heavy amps and unwieldy upright basses through the pool room like they have to in Austin.
"They'll be able to come right out of here," says Wertheimer motioning to the skeletal framework, "get up onstage and start playing."
And this should elicit massive sighs of relief from anyone who's ever crossed their legs while waiting for the Austin club's miniscule bathrooms to become available: The Houston facilities are positively palatial. Both men's and women's rooms will have toilets in abundance, which should alone be worth the three-hour drive. Wertheimer is understandably excited about this development. Standing in what will eventually become the ladies' room, he points out "both sets of bathrooms in the Continental in Austin can fit in one of these."
The bathrooms aren't the only reason Wertheimer is excited about the new Continental. He can't wait to bring in a whole host of Austin artists to decorate the Houston club's spacious walls. Their work, if perhaps not their names, will definitely be familiar to Continental patrons. Rory Skagen of Blue Genie Productions will paint replicas of his Rome, Venice, and Paris murals. L.A. artist Von Franco's distinctive hot-rod alien art will be on display, as will that of Jaime Garza, who worked on the recently refurbished San Jose Motel across from the Austin club.
Handling the lighting will be Jean Goehring, whose handicraft patrons of Little City, By George, Ace Tailors, and the Lucky Lounge should recognize. For the all-important outdoor sign, Todd Sanders, who restored the State Theater marquee to its past glory, has been commissioned to reproduce the club's signature Chevrolet insignia. Wertheimer plans to fill whatever space is left with a multitude of photos from his Austin archives.
"From other people I talk to, they say we got this thing moving about as fast as it can go," says Pete Gordon less than a week later.
A Houston resident since December, the piano player also known as "Pounddawg" is optimistic about the club's chances of opening by mid-June. The bar is almost done, the P.A. is in, and the AC is being installed as he speaks.
"I love Houston," he enthuses. "I think it's a great place to live. It's a big city. Going to the ballpark is great fun. People here have a great attitude -- everybody loves to have a good time. There's a lot going on here.
"Everybody's anxiously awaiting the opening here," he concludes. "We're gonna have a lot of fun. It's pretty tremendous the way things are moving down here."
Steve Wertheimer was born a mere stone's throw from his new club, in Houston's Methodist Hospital. He moved to Rosenberg, about 60 miles to the southwest, as a toddler when his dad bought the small town's drugstore, but his ties to the Bayou City stretch back several generations. His great-grandfather bought property in Houston's Fourth and Fifth Wards around the turn of the last century, and Wertheimer remembers rent-collecting excursions that doubled as family outings.
"We'd always meet right here at Elgin and Main," he remembers. "There was this parking lot on Sunday that there was nothing going on there, so we'd all park the cars and hop in one or two cars instead of four or five. There was a lot of cousins and stuff -- some of the great-aunts and uncles owned one section of the Ward, and some of 'em owned another section, and we'd all head out there together."
Scouting locations with his old friend Schultz, a former co-owner of the successful Houston nightspot the 8.0 Club, Wertheimer says he was overcome with déjô vu when Shultz showed him the former Guy's News.
"We came down on a Saturday morning," he recalls. "He drove us all over the place -- in the downtown area where everything's happening near the ballfield, areas over in the Heights [where his dad grew up], a number of different pretty cool areas. We got down here in this Midtown area, and he showed us this building -- I don't know, I just kinda fell in love with it."
Midtown is so named because it lies directly between downtown Houston and the Rice University/Medical Center/Museum District area that also includes local landmarks Miller Outdoor Theater and Hermann Park. The new Continental is less than a 10-minute drive (with no traffic -- this is Houston, after all) from Enron Field, the spectacular new downtown home of the Houston Astros. Even though the Astros are having a hard time winning in their new digs, the advent of Enron has touched off a boom that Wertheimer expects to spread to his neck of the woods. In fact, he notes, it's already started.
"I have real high hopes for what's gonna go on down here," he says. "It's already happening residentially. If you look back behind us toward Montrose, the same problems we're running into in Austin they're running into in Houston. There's so much pressure on the inner city, and traffic is just horrendous. Nobody wants to drive anymore; everybody wants to live closer to downtown.
"That's why they're having the big renaissance they're having in downtown Houston, and it's all spreading out here to this area, and we're gonna be one of the first ones down here. It's not gonna be that dissimilar to as it was in Austin 14 years ago on South Congress when we went into the Continental and redid that."
Word of Wertheimer's success with the Austin Continental naturally filtered back to his family and friends in Houston, who with every successive visit to the South Congress oasis pestered him more and more to open a similar venue in his hometown. Kicking around the idea for several years while the Continental racked up "Best of Austin" and Austin Music Awards for best nightclub, he finally began scouting locations last August. Gordon moved to town in December to help lay the groundwork, and the title was officially transferred to Wertheimer and his partners in February after they rounded up the building's previous owners -- eight to 10 parties scattered across the mid-Southwest: Louisiana, Oklahoma, etc.
"It was a combination of a lot of pressure from people going, 'Come on, do another one of these things. We have a great time coming up to Austin, we can't come up there all the time. Do something for us that's a little bit closer,'" he says. "And also the fact that I think there's tremendous opportunity here in Houston. The competition is much less fierce.
"If you open up the Houston Press and look at the number of clubs here versus opening up The Austin Chronicle and looking at the number of clubs in Austin, and then take a look at the population census in Houston versus Austin, and it's gotta work. For the type of club that we do, and the size of club that we do, there's gotta be 300 folks out there out of the two and a half or three million people who live here in Houston that enjoy what we're doing. I mean, it's worked in Austin, and I feel pretty confident it's gonna work down here."
One reason Wertheimer is so confident is the increased booking opportunities his new club affords him. Besides the new club being almost twice as large as the Austin location -- meaning he's now able to secure acts like Vaughan and the Jayhawks, whose drawing power alone virtually eliminated the Austin Continental -- having outposts in both Austin and Houston means all sorts of multinight permutations are possible. What he's done, in effect, is establish his own minicircuit: two nights in Houston, one in Austin; two in each; two in Austin, one in Houston, and so forth.
"I'm hoping that the club in Austin will benefit from the fact that we actually have two places for these bands to play [when they] come through Texas," says Wertheimer. "We can offer 'em a package deal on a Thursday-Friday or Friday-Saturday or Tuesday-Wednesday, and they can come and do [a show] in Austin. Normally, I might not get the call on [shows] I'll get the call on now, because we have a place in Houston for them to play."
Since the club was originally slated to open this month, Wertheimer has actually spent a good deal of time lately unbooking and/or rescheduling bands: Geno Delafose, Jonathan Richman, and the Blazers were among those affected by the inevitable construction delays. But once things are open, it should be worth the wait, especially for the musicians. The club is purchasing its own drum kit and amp array, meaning that should they so desire, all musicians will need to bring are their instruments. And they won't have to worry about accommodations, either, as the building's upstairs is being remodeled into apartments for the express purpose of giving bands a place to crash after the gig instead of having to shell out for a motel room and leaving a vanful of expensive, pawnshop-ready equipment at the mercy of the sometimes dicey after-hours Houston streets.
The club is situated in what Wertheimer calls a "transitional neighborhood," meaning burglar bars on all the businesses, a day-labor site up the block, and enough shady activity that he recognizes the importance of cozying up to the boys in blue. As long as the club takes precautions, Wertheimer expects its patrons should be well-shielded from some of the more unsavory aspects of the urban experience.
"We're just gonna deal with it," he says. "Pete's dealing with it right now. There's stuff that goes on here right now that he's on the phone calling Houston's finest to come down here and get these people out of here. I think over time, with the more activity that winds up coming to this area, it'll get cleaned up like South Congress got cleaned up. In the meantime, we'll do what we need to do to have everything lit up, have a uniformed officer on duty, and kinda keep our eyes on things."
Wertheimer singles out two of his new neighbors as helping the club anchor the Midtown resurgence. The soul-food eatery Fusion Cafe down the block at Main & Alabama seems like a natural before or after destination for musicians and patrons alike ("Those guys are so excited about us being down here," he says), and Norbert's Antiques across the street is owned by Damnations TX drummer Conrad Choucroun's father, who has already volunteered the use of his parking lot. He also says the city of Houston has been extremely helpful in smoothing the way for the Continental's arrival.
"They have these revitalization programs in place for Midtown," explains Wertheimer. "They want to get all of this cleaned up, so they've been pretty helpful to us as far as getting this deal pushed through. That's one of the reasons why I think we've had a somewhat easy time doing what we're doing in the midst of all the construction and renovation. There's a committee that's concentrating on this area, and they want this cleaned up too. Because I'm a property owner down here now, I want to see the same thing happen."
That's not all he wants to see happen. Because the building he owns encompasses more than just the club -- approximately 20,000 square feet, upstairs and down -- Wertheimer hopes he can eventually play landlord to some of his fellow South Congress denizens' own Houston branches.
"Now South Congress, it's great down there," he says. "Everybody loves being down there, and I'm hoping the same thing's gonna happen down here, even to the extent that I'm interested in talking to some other Austin institutions, some of those South Congress guys like Uncommon Objects, seeing if they're interested in doing something down here in this area where we kinda create the same vibe down here that we have up there."
If there's one thing Austin's Continental Club has in abundance, it's vibe. With local clubs closing right and left, seemingly indicating that the bottom has dropped out of the Austin live-music market, how has the Continental been able to not only survive, but prosper enough to swing this $300,000 expansion? Wertheimer is at a loss to explain his club's runaway success -- or else he's just being modest -- but others in the Continental inner circle provide some perspective.
"Working with Steve gives you a great sensibility about business and people," says Gordon. "How to treat everybody right and make it a very positive place to work and have lots of fun while working."
Dianne Scott has witnessed the Continental's mushrooming firsthand. Indeed, she's been swept along in the club's tidal wave of success, shutting down the booking agency she founded shortly after moving to Austin from upstate New York in late 1987 (Wertheimer assumed the Continental's reins that New Year's Eve) to work at the club full time. Asked her "official" Continental title, she pauses several beats before saying matter-of-factly, "I work the back door." She also writes and edits the club's monthly Continental Confidential newsletter, maintains its recently founded Web site (www.continental club.com), sends out weekly calendar updates to various media outlets, and serves as club historian and gossip queen.
"I often refer to myself as security and hospitality," she says, "in that I want to make sure everybody has a good time, but not too good a time. I welcome the bands and tell them where to put their equipment, and what they can't do. Steve has made me queen of the pool room. I don't have to listen to anybody else about that. He tells me that I'm allowed to do pretty much what I want, and I do."
Originally working her pool-room post only on weekends, Scott's increased duties mirror exactly the club's upward trajectory. This is how she puts it: "I was working Friday and Saturday, and then I had to start working Sundays because Junior Brown was getting so big that we needed somebody on the back door for Sundays. And then Thursdays started getting so big that I had to work the back door on Thursdays, and then Wednesday nights were busy so I had to work Wednesdays, and then Tuesday nights were busy, so I had to work Tuesdays. In a very short period of time, my job went from being two nights a week to being six nights a week."
Scott says the principal reason the club eventually took off is Wertheimer's deep-rooted love of music and implicit faith in the musicians that play his club. She's quick to give him all the credit for hewing to his vision, even during the club's lean years, where "there were several nights when Steve dipped into his own pocket to pay the bands.
"Steve kept doing what he felt was the right thing to do, and he just didn't give up on it," she says. "The first couple of years that Steve was open, it was kind of a touch-and-go thing as to whether he could keep the doors open ... But then it seemed that finally the public really caught on to what was happening there. If anything, Steve is tenacious. Once he decides that a band is a band that he wants to get behind, he'll stay behind 'em."
One musician who would certainly agree with Scott's assessment is acclaimed singer-songwriter Jon Dee Graham, currently in the fourth year of a Wednesday-night residency that Wertheimer says will last "from here till eternity." The onetime True Believer, who remembers celebrating his 19th, 20th, and 21st birthdays at the club (and also sneaking into a bygone gallery above the front door), is grateful for the sense of constancy Wertheimer's faith provides.
"The thing that I love the most about this place is that I feel like no matter what I choose to do, or no matter how things change, I've got a place to play," he says. "I know that I can always play at the Continental Club. If I wanted to come in and just play acoustic guitar onstage, they'd let me. If I wanted to bring in a marching band and stack them up four deep, they'd let me do that."
Like other musicians too numerous to mention, Graham feels an innate sense of kinship with the club, an intangible connection rooted fast and deep.
"I don't know whether it's a generational thing, or a history thing, but mostly the stuff that I want to see comes through here," he says. "Jonathan Richman, Friends of Dean Martinez -- that kind of stuff seems to find a home here. First of all, they treat the musicians really well. I think we get respect here. They're willing to experiment.
"Steve gave me a weekly gig when I couldn't really get any gigs in town, because I had just started off on my own," he continues. "It's that kind of attitude I think that pulls all the musicians in, and also it's the quality of stuff that they have. Steve Lacy, when he comes through town -- the guy played with Monk, for chrissake, and he plays here. After any Austin City Limits taping, usually you can find one or more of the musicians here. It's a musicians' club."
"The root of that is the fact that Steve has great respect for musicians, and he has created an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable," Scott explains. "And because we've never developed a star thing, anybody who comes in the door is welcome there. We've always been used to Jimmie Vaughan coming in for a drink, Joe Ely coming in for a drink, and just not really thinking too much of the fact that they're there."
It's conventional South Austin wisdom that if a celebrity is in town for any length of time, he or she will eventually find themselves at the Continental. Over the years, luminaries from the world of music (Buck Owens, Wanda Jackson, Dwight Yoakam, Sheryl Crow, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Ray Davies), film (Johnny Depp, Quentin Tarantino, Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock, Sam Shepard), and television (Jennifer Aniston, Farrah Fawcett, Mike Judge, Murphy Brown's Robert Pastorelli, Law & Order's Benjamin Bratt and Chris Noth) have all stopped by for cold beer and live music. Except for the obligatory Confidential snapshots, Scott says their presence hardly fazes patrons and staff alike. At least most of the time.
"It's been the kind of place where celebrities of any ilk feel comfortable there because we're not too overwhelmed by their presence," she says. "I say too overwhelmed because sometimes some of us get a little starstruck. I'm one of 'em. Chris Noth walks in the room and I'm like, 'Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!'"
But celebrities or no, it's still all about the music. Time and again, Wertheimer has exhibited an uncanny knack for being ahead of the curve of musical trends. Junior Brown was packing the place long before No Depression was anything but an old A.P. Carter song. The Naughty Ones held court when lounge was still something most people put by their swimming pools, and 8 1/2 Souvenirs' sassy Euro-swing prefigured Brian Setzer's MTV success by at least a couple of years.
The hard stuff never gets old, either, as evidenced by the club's successful weekend bookings of the Sons of Hercules ("my absolute favorite band," says Scott) and Godzilla Motor Company. Even today, when publications from Newsweek to Flipside fell whole stands of timber to trumpet the so-called death of alternative rock, bands like the Barkers, Orange Mothers, Grand Champeen, Adult Rodeo, Spoon, and Sixteen Deluxe have made the Continental the Thursday-night place to be for those whose tastes run left of the dial.
"Because of the quality of music that [Wertheimer] books, the staff has always been able to be really enthusiastic about the people that play there," Scott says, "which has made my job doing promotions and publicity for the club relatively simple, because 99.9% of the time, I can totally get behind whoever we've got playing there."
So can Austin clubgoers, whether their musical bag is Roger Wallace's vintage Fifties twang, Graham's raspy, hard-bitten rock, Ted Roddy's over-the-top Graceland Revues, Papa Mali & the Instigators' second-line Creole funk, the Damnations' hard-charging earthiness, or the Barkers' carnivalesque cornucopia. Or all of the above. Wertheimer has fashioned a joint where love of music translates into sizable profits, where musicians, newcomers, tourists, celebrities, and South Austin bubbas alike feel right at home. In this light, it's hard to imagine him not wanting to try his luck in Houston, and even harder to imagine him not succeeding. His dedication pervades every aspect of the Continental Club from the top down, and his acumen keeps the club humming like the engine on one of his beloved hot rods.
"One of the things I believe that has made Steve so successful with the Continental Club is that he still carries out the garbage," Scott says. "There's no job that's beneath him."