How Cheer Up Charlies is working to stay afloat during the shutdown, with a little help from their friends
By Annie Lyons
A quick look at Cheer Up Charlies’ calendar of past events reveals all the Red River bar values. There’s everything from a monthly LGBTQ storytelling showcase to an evening of Texas sex education with comedy and drag performances to a neon rainbow ‘90s country night that features all things Dolly. And, of course, there’s countless concerts highlighting local artists.
Since opening in 2009 — first as a food truck and then as a bar one year later — Cheer Ups, decorated with whimsical murals and a neon sign outside with a shining grin, has made its name as a place that welcomes and celebrates Austin’s LGBTQ community. Yet it’s never conformed to any one definition. When co-owner Maggie Lea describes her and co-owner Tamara Hoover’s vision for the venue, she speaks of a creative community space where like-minded folks can gather for all types of programming.
“‘Everybody’s space’ is what we called it. You don’t put a label on the type of people that come through your doors, and everybody feels comfortable, hopefully,” she says. “We wanted to be a place that can function as a live music venue or a dance club or a speaker panel space or a storytelling night or a literary night.”
Like all Austin music venues, the Red River bar shut down in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lea, who has been undergoing cancer treatments since August 2019, had coronavirus on her radar long before most of the American public; her doctor’s office was taking the risk seriously by early February with people wearing masks to protect the immunocompromised. Before any U.S. cases had been publicly confirmed by the end of that month, some of her nurses had already asked her if she thought South by Southwest would still happen.
So when the festival was cancelled on March 6, she wasn’t shocked — but it was a devastating blow nonetheless.
“South By is our main source of income. We taper that money throughout the rest of the year to supplement months that are slow or winter months, summer months where there’s not a lot of people in town,” she says.
Hoover and Lea took the next steps when the state officially closed bars on March 19. They enacted mass layoffs so that their staff could get unemployment benefits and successfully applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. And when their staff approached them with anxieties over rent and bills as they waited for their first unemployment checks, Lea created an emergency staff fund via GoFundMe, which recently surpassed its goal of $18,000.
“Tamara and I have been through so much as far as moving locations, tons of upheaval and changes within our leases … all kinds of stuff. We’ve been doing this a long time. So it honestly was just like, ‘Okay, what else can you throw at us?’ I guess we’re going to close it, but we’ll just figure it out,” she says.
But for all the changes the pandemic brings, the Cheer Ups community remains vibrant.
Frontman Connor McCampbell and dance choreographer/performer LB Flett of synth pop performance group TC Superstar can’t help but beam when they recall their favorite memory on the Cheer Ups stage: the May 2019 release show for their album R&D.
“It was kind of a once in a lifetime show. Cheer Ups was the perfect place to do it,” Flett says.
They remember audience members standing on tables for a better view as a line wrapped around the block outside the venue. Other Austin musicians and friends joined them on stage for the songs they feature on as the band played the whole album start to finish. “Just a beautiful energy,” McCampbell adds with a smile.
TC Superstar is known for their elaborate choreography, technicolor visuals and high-concept albums. The group has always had that certain something that perfectly fits the Cheer Ups ethos. Since their inception, they’ve become homegrown favorites on the venue stage and believe they’ve played there more than any other spot in town.
McCampbell sums it up simply: “It just feels like home base.”
The affection is mutual.
“I always worked when they played because we were so busy when they would come in,” says bartender Kathee Lozano. “That was the one kind of guaranteed band (where) if you saw that they were playing or they were headlining, you knew it was just going to be a huge night. It was going to be all hands on deck and good vibes all around.”
Flett remembers brainstorming ways for the band to stay engaged with their fans in lieu of live shows.
“At the same time, we were also noticing that a lot of people were struggling. A lot of good local businesses were struggling, and specifically, the ones that have always helped us out — which are our local venues,” she says.
They soon settled on the idea of a series of livestream concerts titled “Tip Your Bartenders.” Each show would spotlight a different venue, and viewers would be encouraged to donate to the corresponding staff emergency funds. Cheer Ups was a no-brainer for the line-up and the first venue they approached.
How do you do a socially distanced livestream when your concerts regularly feature five instrumentalists and three dancers?
“Sometimes constraints lead to creativity,” Flett laughs.
Taking advantage of Instagram Live’s split-screen feature that allows other users to join the stream, they developed a variety show of sorts with Flett and McCampbell acting as MCs for a litany of guests. (The pair are roommates and could safely record together.)
The April 23 “Tip Your Bartenders” show for Cheer Ups featured performances from Daphne Tunes, Blair Howerton of Why Bonnie and Aaron Chavez of both TC Superstar and Volunteer Astronauts, as well as Flett and McCampell doing TC material with another one of the group’s dancers, Emily DiFranco. Bartenders from Cheer Ups also made appearances to give drink mixing demonstrations, including Lozano, who whipped up her own creation: a creamy peanut butter and jelly shot.
Mccampbell jokes, “It was kind of a bummer, ‘cause it was always like, ‘Oh, you made this awesome drink!’ We’ll toast with our cheap beer that we have here.”
About 300 people tuned in to the livestream, well surpassing the capacity of Cheer Ups’ indoor stage. Lea estimates the event raised about $1,000 for the GoFundMe.
Lozano says the GoFundMe was integral in helping her make rent, and the fundraiser exceeded her expectations.
“I thought it would have been really, really cool, even if it wasn’t raising money for us, but the fact that it went to our GoFundMe — it was just really sweet and selfless of them,” she says.
Part of what makes Cheer Ups special to the Austin music scene is the venue’s tendency to take a chance on new talent in town, like when TC was first starting out.
“We have spent a lot of time capturing incubator type bands, like local bands, right from their start, giving them their first show or their first time to be on stage,” Lea says. “We don’t charge room fees and stuff, so I think it allows all kinds of people in the creative class to get their foot in the door.”
She thinks this generosity is part of the reason so many people decided to give back to the venue and feels grateful for any support while the bar remains closed.
When bars were allowed to open on May 22 for Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, Lea and Hoover held off, not wanting to rush. They instead spent their time deep-cleaning, investing in personal protection equipment and figuring out how Cheer Ups can safely continue to function.
It’s expensive and time-consuming to thoroughly sanitize the space, Lea explains. For instance, they’ve completely redone some of the floors behind the counters to make every surface cleanable.
“Bars are meant to be gathering places; it’s meant to be about the atmosphere, the vibe and the buzz of people gathering,” she says. “Part of being at a bar is to not always feel so clinical and sterile.”
They began aiming to reopen the first week of July as a patio cocktail bar, taking advantage of their recently remodeled outdoor space and garden. (“Our plants are thriving,” Lea jokes.) Masks would be required at entry, among other restrictions, like only allowing one person at a time to use the restrooms inside.
But on June 26 — hardly a week before their scheduled reopening — their plans crashed to a halt when Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order requiring all bars to shut down that same day.
Now, it’s a waiting game. Bars can’t technically reopen yet under state mandates. But it’s a frustrating burden placed on owners to decide the right thing to do. Open too early, and you risk harming your staff and community members. Open too late, and you risk closing permanently.
“It’s just kind of been a struggle deciding when to open because of the mixed messaging and the onus on small businesses to decide what the rules are,” Lea says.
She and Hoover worry about the financial costs to reopen piling up too high the longer they stay closed. Most of their PPP loan was used to pay for things like rent, utilities and TABC taxes for the months they’ve been closed — things that the festival revenue could’ve made up for.
Lozano says she knows Hoover and Lea would never directly put their staff at risk by reopening prematurely. And her co-workers, who she describes as family, are the “type of people that are always going to wear a mask or face covering to the grocery and just stay at home as much as possible.” Still, she feels nervous at the prospect of eventually returning to work given the number of COVID-19 cases.
“I can almost guarantee that none of our staff will get sick at the bar, but I am worried about other people because … you can’t totally control how people act when they drink in a social setting,” she says. “But at the end of the day, it’s worth it for me to go back … because even though I’ve only been there two years, that company and that family just means so much to me.”
“It’s a welcoming, supportive community, and it’s kind of one of those things like if they’re a friend of yours, they’re a friend of mine.”
Reopening also sparks the existential question: As a place that thrives on community gatherings, what can Cheer Ups be during the pandemic?
“At this point, I don’t know,” Lea says. “I think we’re stuck to just selling alcohol. It sounds really cynical, but we’re like, are we just selling drinks to make ends meet?”
“We definitely had a sense of where we fit in before the pandemic. And I think nobody can speak in past tense terms about stuff like that — we have to reimagine where we fit in in the future.”
This summer, that looks like cultivating community in every way they can, like supporting the Black Lives Matter protests and finding new ways to celebrate Pride.
Lea says that in the past, Cheer Ups has always tried to reject “rainbow capitalism,” referring to when corporations co-opt Pride for profit, in favor of a more DIY approach.
While those events couldn’t happen this year, Lozano believes the Austin LGBTQ community still came together during the month, especially considering the original Pride’s legacy of protests led by Black trans women.
“Even if we can’t be at the bar celebrating Pride, I feel like we’re all still doing our part from home,” Lozano says. “I know that the rest of our staff has just been spending a lot of time and energy donating, petitioning, protesting and sharing information virtually, and just trying to support the Black Lives Matter cause and especially highlight queer Black people.”
Hoover and Lea collaborated with different artists to sell t-shirts, splitting the proceeds between their reopening costs and various Black Lives Matter groups, with a focus on Black LGBTQ organizations. So far, they’ve raised over $7,600 for BLM causes.
“I can’t say more about the type of community that we have built for eleven years,” Lea says, “including all of our previous employees and anybody that’s ever put in time and effort and their passion into our space, I think it shows that we have a very large, robust network of people who understand us.”
“(Cheer Ups) makes a lasting impression on the next person that walks through the door and the next person after that.”
TC Superstar would agree with her. It’s places like Cheer Ups that make the Austin music scene feel like home for McCampbell and Flett.
“As much as we’ve toured around the U.S., not to throw shade on any other cities, but there is not a music scene I’ve seen out there that is like ours and how close-knit it is,” McCampbell says. “The pandemic scared me a lot, even just with the initial cancellation of South By, knowing what that does to businesses here. But I have a lot of hope. I think we have a wonderful community. People here look out for each other.”
The venue’s latest merch offering says it all. In bright letters, the t-shirt reads: “The Best Little Gay Bar/Not A Gay Bar/Is It A Gay Bar?/Lesbian-Owned Music Venue-Danceclub Whatever-You-Need-It-To-Be In Texas.”
And for those who love Cheer Up Charlies, the space is exactly what they need it to be.