Faster Than Sound: Cheer Up Charlies Principal Maggie Lea Takes on Breast Cancer

Cheer Up Charlies co-owner reflects on business and mental health evolution following diagnosis. Meanwhile, the Convention Center expansion gets approval by Music Commission, and Project ATX6 announces a new lineup.

Maggie Lea (Photo by Jana Birchum)

In 2010, Tamara Hoover expanded her vegan food truck to a newly vacant bar space on East Sixth. The same year, recent college graduate Maggie Lea began coordinating outdoor screenings as Cinema East. The two eventually joined forces to run Cheer Up Charlies, which relocated to Red River. Their artistic dedication has powered the space into one of Austin's most influential and beloved live music venues.

Without outside partners, the "ambiguous everybody space" has sustained on Hoover and Lea's dogged independence and LGBTQ-friendly outreach. They're not attuned to asking for help, but today the life and business partners launched GoFundMe page "Let's Go Maggie! Beat Breast Cancer!" to raise $8,000.

"I could've been dead at 33," admits Lea, who received a diagnosis for stage 2 breast cancer two months ago. "I'm just glad I found this tumor."

She recently wrapped up the second of six rounds of chemotherapy and plans to have surgery in January. The diagnosis followed a challenging year for Lea and Hoover after a considerable portion of their senior bar staff moved on to different jobs. New gen staffers are now running smoothly, and Lea still visits the venue, but the forced rest time has granted her clarity on past periods of mental health neglect.

"I was trying to figure out how to fix everything in my life, and I felt like all the words were scrambled," says the Houston native. "When I was diagnosed, for some reason, all the words fell onto the page. Now it's legible, and I can see forward."

She tracks the work/life scramble to the venue's relocation five years ago to the patio-lined space of Club DeVille. The new Cheer Ups eventually found a niche for fundraisers and collaborations with student groups like KVRX, alongside their longtime emphasis on drag and dance parties. Around that time, Lea also faced the death of her younger sister.

"Looking back now, I didn't realize I had become this totally self-sufficient, lonely island of functioning everyday robotically," shares the business owner. "I neglected to handle some of the emotional stuff that I had been putting away, and I'm still processing it."

Today, Lea maintains most of her hair. That's no small triumph given that she was supposed to be bald by now. In fact, Hoover's jogging group, Rogue Running, helped fund Chemo Cold Caps to assist in maintaining her partner's trademark mane.

Another recent shakeup – the business' 2018 lease renewal – now presents a point of positivity. In the shadow of Downtown hotel developments, Cheer Ups is signed on for five more years. During negotiations, Lea pulled on daily inspirations at her rainbow-hued community space.

"I'll see two girls on their first date, or two older women in their 60s hanging out, or a trans person that just came out, and they'll come to the bar and talk to me," adds the co-owner. "We stay open for people like that."

Photo by Jana Birchum

Serving Up Convention Center Expansion

Sparks flew at Monday's Music Commission meeting, matching fiery citywide civic debate over the Convention Center expansion. Following impassioned discussion, the commission ultimately approved a recommendation to City Council in support of the Downtown project. As covered here (revisit "Music Advocates Say Convention Center Expansion Key to Unlocking City Funds," July 5), nonprofit Music Makes Austin organizes support of the long-brewing project, while political action committee Unconventional Austin formed to actively oppose the expansion in June.

At the meeting, new nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians spoke in favor of the expansion, with input from local musicians Nakia Reynoso and Tom Van Schaik, drummer for Robert Earl Keen. Executive Director Patrick Buchta conveyed that the project's ability to unlock tax funds previously not routed to local music makes it beneficial for all players.

"We're talking about the first-ever public funding for music," said Buchta.

Representing Unconventional Austin, local attorney and longtime civic activist Fred Lewis spoke against this ideological grouping. Diving into city tax code revisions up for Council vote on Sept. 19, he pointed out that city funds could theoretically support music under current laws.

"The money isn't coming from the hotel occupancy tax, but they're making it contingent on that," said Lewis. "That's not legal. That's not financial. That's political. They could give you the money now."

Historically, funding has never reached music. Commission member Gavin Garcia, who later voted in support of the Convention Center, emphasized that the group is well aware of Lewis' legal argument.

"We know that money's always been there," said Garcia. "This is just a focal point Mayor Adler has presented. There are a lot of people eating from this plate."

Attorney and Music Venue Alliance Austin founder Rebecca Reynolds responded directly to Lewis' statements: "To use your status as an attorney to pander to this group is insulting, to say the least. ... The particular bucket that the money is coming from is irrelevant, because the only way we're going to get it out is if we agree to this plan that helps the broader community."

Ahead of a final vote, commission member Jonathan Mahone, aka Chaka of Riders Against the Storm, presented an earnest explanation of why he wouldn't support the project. Convention Center plans date back to a 2017 Visitor Impact Task Force, which Mahone served on. At the close of the process, he says he was excluded from penning the final recommendations, despite being the only black person in the group.

"It represents Austin in a nutshell for me, and my experience as a black musician in this city," said Mahone. "I have no faith in their points about delivering anything to underrepresented groups. People continue to talk about equity, but somehow my voice continues to be ignored when I'm present on a regular basis.

"It's sickening."


Midland (Photo by Gary Miller)

Project ATX6 selected another round of local musicians handpicked to globe trot with the annual documentary series. Sunday at Waterloo Records, on-air KUTX personality Laurie Gallardo announced the recruitment of Pocket Sounds soloist Mike St. Clair, R&B singer Alesia Lani, and country artist Kathryn Legendre. Evan Charles of Americana group Altamesa, Jonathan Horstmann from Blxpltn and V3co, as well as Moving Panoramas leader Leslie Sisson also join the travel party, destined for Toronto's Indie Week Festival in November and Brighton's Great Escape Festival next spring.

Midland, the Dripping Springs-launched country trio, earned their first No. 1 spot on Billboard's Top Country Albums charts for sophomore LP Let It Roll. Grammy-nominated bandmates Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson, and Cameron Duddy celebrated last Saturday with a free show on the LBJ Library Lawn ahead of the Texas-LSU game, as part of the Longhorn City Limits concert series.

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Maggie Lea, Cheer Up Charlies, Tamara Hoover, Music Commission, Convention Center, Music Makes Austin, Austin Texas Musicians, Jonathan Mahone, Riders Against the Storm, ATX6 2019, Midland

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