Things To Do: Continental Club 22nd Anniversary

Its 20 year anniversary delayed by two years of COVID-19, The Continental Club of Houston is ready to celebrate its 20th/21st/22nd anniversary on Saturday  July 16 with a full night of live performances on the large Continental Club stage and the smaller stage next door in Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top Lounge.

The free event will kick off at 6 p.m. and include performances by Johnny Falstaff, The Allen Oldies Band, Bayou City Funk, Kalo, Shame On Me, Luba Dvorak, Fatal Jets, Christopher Seymore, The Lonesome Haunts and Houston’s A.S.S.

“We’ve always tried to do it as a thank you to all the people for coming out all year and getting us to another year. People make it happen,” says club owner Pete Gordon.

Due to the pandemic, The Continental Club was unable to celebrate their hallmark 20th anniversary in 2020 and could not celebrate the following year either because of COVID conditions.  

“We gotta have a party so big that it covers three anniversaries,” says talent booker Allen Hill who has performed frequently and been involved with the club since day one.

“We gotta have a party so big that it covers three anniversaries.”

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It all began in Austin on one of the capital’s most iconic streets, South Congress, where the original Continental Club, owned by Houstonian Steve Wertheimer, has been open since 1955 initially serving as a classy supper club before becoming a mecca for live music and a breeding ground for local and national talent.

Gordon relocated to Austin from Washington D.C. after connecting with Wertheimer through Gordon’s band at the time, The Neptunes. Gordon was involved in the Austin club and both knew that they wanted to expand and build upon the Continental Club’s long running legacy. They decided that Houston was a more realistic city to buy property in than Austin.

Wertheimer and Gordon reached out to Houston developer and friend Bob Schultz. Says Shultz, “I’d been pestering Steve for a long time about coming to Houston. Then one day he called and said, ‘I’m going to introduce you to your new best friend,” referring to Gordon.

Shultz took the two all over town to see potential spots for the club but the location at 3700 Main Street, built in the ‘30s, kept haunting them all. Despite the rough exterior and a challenging surrounding neighborhood, they could tell the building had potential with its decorative and still functioning neon lights hanging from the printed tin ceiling and the black and white tile floor which has now experienced the steps of countless dancers.

“It was interesting because Wertheimer definitely has always had a great feeling for the vintage thing and you could tell that we were going to make something really cool out of it. There was a real sense of that,” says Shultz.

The group made something beyond “cool” and has slowly built out the entire Mid Main area focusing on preserving the buildings and supporting not only musicians who play the club, local or not, but also by opening the Mid Main Lofts atop of all of the nearby bars, restaurants and local shops making it one of our few mixed use, walkable areas in the city.

“We just wanted it to be authentic and be of Houston,” says Schultz. “People would say, ‘Oh man this place reminds me of South Congress.’ and Pete would say, ‘It should remind you of Houston’.’’

Throughout the years the Continental Club has hosted not only live music but fundraisers, weddings, memorial services and more. “It’s turned into a much bigger thing than just the club now. I love how this club has also become a community center for the neighborhood,” says Gordon.

Their survival and ability to develop the area has not been without its challenges; recessions, the long and messy process of building the METRO Rail, floods and COVID but it’s the club’s grit and ability to bring people together that has helped it maintain its place in the Houston music landscape.

“It’s been amazing to watch this neighborhood grow,” says Gordon who has done most of the work on the buildings himself with some help from his friends and team. “When I first got down here in 1999 it was me and a thousand bums down here. People didn’t even know this neighborhood existed.”

The team continued exploring and acquiring the block finding treasure after treasure behind the stucco facades of the old structures and instead of tearing them down decided to give them a little facelift and maintain the integrity of the historic buildings.

“Bob is the greatest about saving things and keeping things the way they should be,” says Gordon. Schultz, who had already been in the nightclub and bar business, knew firsthand the importance of maintaining a consistent culture around the club to preserve not only a vibe but also to promote a sense of safety and community.

As they got the Continental Club going and began attracting people to this seldom visited part of town, they saw the need for more options on the block including a place to eat before and after the shows leading them to create the recently expanded Tacos-A-Go-Go.

click to enlarge The festive outside entrance to Shoeshine Charley's Big Top Lounge. - PHOTO BY VIOLETA ALVAREZ

The festive outside entrance to Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top Lounge.

Photo by Violeta Alvarez

Five years after The Continental Club opened, before they acquired the spacious backyard, Gordon began cleaning out what is now Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top Lounge with the hope of creating a smaller stage to showcase local acts.

Once he began tearing down the drop ceiling and removing the many layers of paint he discovered a beautifully preserved circus themed mural along the walls dating back to the ‘50s when the room was Playhouse Toys owned by the Frank Family.

Gordon took the theme and ran with it creating one of Houston’s most whimsical bars centered around playful imagery of clowns, toys, year round Christmas lights and the king of rock and roll Elvis Presley whose name fittingly shines in big bright lights every night in the backyard of the club.

“It’s inviting and it’s fun,” says Hill who curates the small funky room named after an actual shoeshine man and friend of Gordon’s who planned on being a part of the club before he passed away. “I can book anything from a solo singer songwriter and make it a listening room to having a punk band. That room can be anything.”

The fact that the club owners and operators are first and foremost music fans seeps into the club’s programing as they often provide a space for artists like Archie Bell, Wanda Jackson and the late Roy Head, preserving rock and roll in the process and celebrating these artists before it’s too late.

Both Continental Clubs as well as Shoeshine Charley’s have also served as a launching pad for artists or a first stop for bands on tour who later go on to play much larger rooms and festivals.

“The fact that Ronnie Wood finished a Rolling Stones show and came to the Continental Club, that is the epitome of it and of how cool it is,” says Hill.

The relationship between the club and musicians has always been a symbiotic one that seems to thrive naturally creating a full circle between the owners and operators, most of whom are musicians and know the ins and outs of the business, the bands playing and the fans.

“The magic is when you have the right band with the right crowd and the right club and then it creates something that’s shared energy and bigger than the sum of its parts. Everything is built around those interactions and there’s a lot of love and energy that goes into facilitating the communication,” says Hill.

For 22 years The Continental Club has hosted many weekly events and residencies such as bingo nights in the early years to Tango Mondays, Beetle Thursdays Allen Oldies every New Year and the Disco Expressions commemorating holidays throughout the year.

“We really do try to treat all the musicians and bands with respect and we try to make it fun and easy for them and hopefully the bands will do the same with us,” says John “Goodtime” Smith who has managed the club for the past 12 years.

Many of the club’s frequent performers form part of the Continental carousel of musicians who share duties across multiple bands further cementing the sense of community in the area and contributing to the growth of the Houston music scene overall.

“Steve Wertheimer in Austin has always done a good job of fostering talent. He sees something he likes and he really goes out of his way to help them get a good start and I’ve always taken that as an example,” says Gordon.

Celebrating legends and helping younger bands is what has kept The Continental Club going and what will continue to push them into the future. “I’m fascinated that we are the old guard now,” says Hill, who understands the importance of showcasing newer bands. Hopefully fans, new and old, will continue to come out to Mid Main to eat, shop and rock.

“Support live music,” encourages Gordon. “Come on down, enjoy yourselves, let yourself go, let your hair down, have a beer and be nice to people.”   

The Continental Club Houston 20th/21st/22nd Anniversary Bash will take place on Saturday, July 16 at The Continental Club and Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top Lounge, 3700 Main.  Doors at 6 p.m, Free.

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