Drag queens lip-syncing to Brandy and Monica, live psychedelic music reverberating against a rock wall amphitheater, and a crowd of hundreds of people with a line extending down Red River Street. The grand reopening of Cheer Up Charlie’s was such a success that it’s hard to believe the former location closed only a month prior.
By Alexis Chastain, Jessica Duong, Caroline Khoury, and Joan Vinson
Tamara Hoover and Maggie Lea, partners and co-owners of the bar and venue Cheer Up Charlie’s, sat side-by-side on a retro-style olive-green couch in the artsy and colorful space of Cheer Up’s new location on 900 Red River St. The two seemed to be in high spirits after their successful grand reopening event and spoke to us frankly about the closing of their old location on East Sixth Street.
It was near the end of November 2013 when Hoover and Lea received a call from their landlord that the land where their beloved bar stood for more than three years was sold to make way for a hotel development. They were given 30 days to vacate the premises.
“When we first went in to rent the space, we were told by the landlord that they were intending on developing a hotel,” Hoover admitted. “So we went into it knowing that something would happen to the space eventually because the property was too valuable. Something would happen.”
Cheer Up Charlie’s opened into their first brick-and-mortar location back in April 2010 — formerly a vegan raw and cooked food trailer. As the years passed, Hoover and Lea were told by their landlord that the hotel development was proving more difficult than they had originally thought.
“We were getting excited and starting to feel comfortable in our space there,” Hoover said. “We had always been told ‘don’t worry, you’re fine, you’re going to have plenty of time heads up… at least six months you’ll know in advance when we’re going to do something.’”
Of course that wasn’t the case when the La Corsha Hospitality Group, the company responsible for projects such as Bar Congress and the Driskill Hotel restoration, bought the land to make way for a new bar, which will later have a hotel addition after the trailer eatery space nearby also closes.
At the time of their closing, Cheer Up Charlie’s had already gained popularity as an LGBT-friendly spot with an all-inclusive attitude towards anyone who wanted to be a part of the space. The venue also provided a space for artists, musicians, filmmakers, and even literary connoisseurs to gather and share their work. The news of the closing triggered many sad reactions among the community, which didn’t surprise Hoover or Lea, but the overwhelmingly personal responses did.
“There were a lot of people who had identified very much with what we had created,” Lea said. “There were people who were very heartbroken. I saw a lot of people say like ‘oh I woke up this morning and I saw that Cheer Up Charlie’s was closing and now I’m going to have a bad day over it.’”
Kim Thurman and Aaron Smith, tour guides at the state Capitol, frequented the old Cheer Ups location almost on a daily basis and were at the grand reopening by 5 p.m. — well before the festivities began. When asked how they felt about the closing, the two friends burst into laughter and admitted they were extremely devastated by the news.
“We went into mourning the week we knew that they were closing. It was basically like every night lets go [to Cheer Ups],” Smith said. “And we’ve been counting down the time until they reopened.”
While Cheer Up Charlie’s is seen as a popular LGBT spot, Thurman and Smith commented on how it’s more laid back compared to the gay bars on Fourth Street, like Rain or Oilcan Harry’s, which can be “super dance-y” and make the LGBT clientele “the main thing.”
“It’s a mix. When you’re [at Cheer Ups] it never really comes up, you just know it’s around,” Smith said. “It’s comforting.”
Thurman added that in the wake today’s male-centric news coverage of gay rights, Cheer Ups was a place where she commonly saw lesbian couples hanging out and going on dates.
“Cheer Up Charlie’s was the only place that I would ever see girl couples, which I thought was really cool,” said Thurman. “It was always the guys that everybody had a problem with and nobody was paying attention to the fact that there were girls out there who liked girls. And that’s okay!”
Coincidentally, Cheer Up Charlie’s new space was formerly a lesbian bar named Chances that opened in 1982. Julie and Jeane Nielson, twin sisters and former bartenders for Chance’s, were among the bunch that came out to the grand reopening to remember Chance’s and to celebrate Austin’s queer culture.
“Of course I think Cheer Ups is a younger crowd, but I still would see people my age there,” said Julie. “Anybody’s welcome and I think that’s the similarity.”
“It’s like a reborn Chance’s feel almost. Like I can see us back then, here now,” added Jeanne.
Fortunately, the new Cheer Up Charlie’s continues to cultivate the same all-inclusive attitude Hoover and Lea had created in the original location. Similarly to the last location, the new space features murals and artwork from local artists, books local bands to perform, and hosts a number of interesting attractions such as last Friday’s Drag Queen Mortal Combat and the upcoming Girls With Gunz event, an all-female arm wrestling tournament.
“Regardless of sexual preference, or gender identity, I always wanted a place that I could hang out with people that were so diverse and I could learn so much about the world and what I wanted to do,” Hoover said. “That was the intention. Was to no matter who you were, what you were, how you identified, what your preference was sexually, you were going to be okay here and you were going to find somebody who maybe wasn’t maybe like you who you could maybe create a new friendship with.”
The closing of the old Cheer Ups was a shaky experience for Hoover and Lea, but now with a secure lease and a supportive landlord, they can breath a sigh of relief, knowing that their haven is safe for the many years to come. And though the process of finding a new place and preparing the venue for the reopening happened faster than they thought it would, Hoover says that she didn’t feel the space was complete until the eclectic mix of people that made Cheer Up Charlie’s what it is today filled the building.
“We weren’t expecting that many people. It was wonderful,” Hoover said. “This space is nothing without the people, the smiling faces, the diverse crowds, the different factions of our community. It all arrives here and that’s what makes this good, it makes it fun, it makes it important.”