Following a Vision, Igniting a Neighborhood"Twenty-five years ago, the only thing down there after 5 o'clock in the afternoon was us," he says. "[Us and] insurance companies, carpet stores, a gun shop."
Today, South Congress Avenue is one of Austin's hippest, hopping-est strips, but things were very different when Steve Wertheimer bought the Continental Club.
"Twenty-five years ago, the only thing down there after 5 o'clock in the afternoon was us," he says. "[Us and] insurance companies, carpet stores, a gun shop."
At the time, Wertheimer was putting his accounting degree from the University of Texas to work at a "suit and tie" job, but he also had a finger in the restaurant business, first starting a barbecue catering company, then buying and developing another Austin icon, Ski Shores Cafe.
Then a friend suggested he buy a decrepit old club on the wrong side of town.
The Continental Club opened in 1955 and had been open almost continuously since then. In the '70s, such Texas legends as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Ely and Kinky Friedman played its stage. But in 1986, it was a dump in a crummy neighborhood. Wertheimer completely renovated the place, and on New Year's Eve 1987, the first performer on the new Continental Club stage was 87-year-old barrelhouse piano player Roosevelt Williams, aka the Grey Ghost.
The Ghost then became the first of a Continental trademark: a resident artist with a standing weekly gig at the club. Some artists stay in residence for years — country band Heybale! has been playing Sunday nights at the Continental Club for 10 years now.
"The success of the club has a lot to do with the consistency," says Wertheimer. "We've developed relationships with these artists. They're like family. And people know, for example, that if it's a Tuesday and it's early, [they can] see Toni Price." (The club also has touring and other acts.)
The Continental Club was well established by the time gentrification came to the neighborhood, and with the addition of First Thursday, a monthly blocks-long party, the area's popularity exploded. Wertheimer worried that the neighborhood would go corporate, but that isn't South Austin's style. "South Austin types would rather sit in a place like Jo's than Starbucks."
The cool thing about the development, Wertheimer says, is that it was all grass-roots. "There was no big master plan, it just happened. Now it's unbelievable how many people are here on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. And I don't know what people do for a living in Austin, but they all seem to be able to sleep late, because they're out all night."
With the Continental Club attracting locals and tourists from around the world, Wertheimer now has the means to pursue a passion: collecting vintage cars. "There's something about musicians and rock 'n' roll joints and old cars that go together," he says.
Eleven years ago, he started the annual Lone Star Rod & Kustom Round Up, which today brings a dazzling parade of hot rods and cool cars to South Congress. "And the party really starts at 6 o'clock, when the car show is over and the music starts," says Wertheimer. "It's become one of the premier shows in the country. People drive all the way from Canada in their old cars to be here."
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