Just ahead of their 5th anniversary, historic country music club Neon Boots has a full week of events planned to celebrate the big milestone. One of the bar’s partners, Debbie Storrs, sat down to About Magazine’s Wendy Taylor all about it.
(HOUSTON) – Life, no matter who you are, is all about phases and change. The only thing that remains consistent in life — as the old adage goes — is change itself. And for a city with a history as rich and vivid as Houston, it’s rare to find something that withstands the test of time and manages to remain constant. Still if any city were to come close to making it happen, it would be a city like Houston, Texas. That place — the one that may not be exactly the same, but that certainly holds up close to the original — is called Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon; and this month, Neon Boots is celebrating its five-year-anniversary with a celebration that pays great homage to its old Houston roots.
The bar once known as the Esquire Ballroom opened in 1955 at the hands of Raymond Proske. The Esquire was notorious for its variety of acts that passed through its doors over the years leading all the way up until 1995. Legends such as Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn lived their humble beginnings at the Esquire, some even launching their careers there. And while the Esquire shut down for business in the mid-90s, and while several other business ventures came and went over the years, Neon Boots was finally born in 2013. But what’s most magical about Neon Boots isn’t how many years its been open — although it’s safe to say that maintaining a successful, LGBTQ business five years is no small accomplishment. What’s most impressive is that, at the hands of its many new owners, Neon Boots has been completely renovated and restored in such a way that the history of the Esquire Ballroom is still very much alive — one room of the bar even named after it where karaoke is hosted nearly every single night.
But now the bar — which sees patrons of all sexual orientations, gender identifications, races, religions, and more — boasts an exuberant number of events weekly that reel in guests from all over the city. From karaoke, to dance lessons, the summer concerts, to Latin nights, and so much more, Neon Boots — in just five years — has become one an extraordinary landmark for Houston’s LGBTQ community and beyond that maintains and honors its building’s beautiful history. That’s thanks to the club’s original six partners who went into this business together in August of 2013: Jim Gerhold and partner Jim Moore, Rodney Myers, Ron McLeroy, James Daily, and Debbie Storrs. But, of course, it’s also thanks to Neon’s current partners, which still include Gerhold (who tragically lost his partner, Moore, of 37 years recently), Myers, McLeroy, and Storrs; the newest partner, Fernando Garcia, husband of Daily who sold him his interest. And just a few weeks ahead of the big celebration, About Magazine editorial consultant and renowned musician Wendy Taylor sat down with one of the bar’s partners, the hilarious and kind Debbie Storrs.
Wendy: I know that Neon boots has a really rich music history. Here in Houston, and in Texas, it’s a pretty big deal. Did you want to tell us a little bit about that history?
Neon Boots: Well, I don’t even know where to start, because it started way back in 1955. That’s when this place was built. Raymond Proske built it — we lost him a couple years ago. Bless his heart. But he owned it for forty years. And over those forty years, the great legends of country music all had their time here.
Patsy Cline? Willy Nelson?
The actual play about Patsy Cline [the musical Always … Patsy Cline] was written about this place. This is where she was performing when they wrote the play.
Are you serious? I didn’t know that part. That’s neat.
Yes, it is. Willy Nelson used to sleep in our parking lot. He did. He was trying to sell his songs for ten dollars. And they said they wouldn’t buy the songs, but that he could perform here if he’d like. And so he slept in our parking lot many nights. And then of course, there’s his song that was written about this place, too, when he was driving back and forth to Pasadena. And the history that I’m talking about right now — those two items at least — are written in our Esquire Room. If you go, we dedicated that branch to Esquire.
What happens in the Esquire Room now?
Well, it’s a wine bar, primarily. And also karaoke. And it’s a great, great place. Almost every night we have karaoke in there.
It is so fun doing karaoke here.
We have some really great singers too.
Yeah, there’s some really good talent here. It’s a good blend, too. It is a country bar and everyone who comes in here is your typical 21st century American and they like everything from rap to showtunes to country, old country, new country.
You never know. I tell everyone, “We’re an everybody bar.” Not a “one way or the other” kind of bar. We’re an everybody bar. We want everyone to be comfortable here and have a good time. And we have all kinds of different people that come through here. And some of the old-timers that used to come here and dance when it was the Esquire Room we’ll see occasionally. A couple of them will come in and right away you can tell they’re very skeptical because they’ve heard about the history of the place maybe being a gay bar. So you can always tell because the wife has got the heels on [that are] about three inches tall. She’s got the big purse, right? And she’s holding onto the husband; she’s got him so close to her that they could wear the same pants. So they both come in and their eyes are just as big around as saucers and they don’t know what to expect. They’re just looking. And so I’m the first one to look to them when I see somebody like that. I’ll say, “Is this your first time here?” And they’ll say, “Yeah, it’s our first time.” And I’ll tell them, “Oh, that’s wonderful. We’re so happy to have you. Please feel free to walk around and check the place out. You’ll see a lot of history there and you’ll see the different stars on the walls. Be sure to check out our great patio in the back and just have a great time and let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
I loved singing on the back patio y’all had when I first started coming here — when y’all first opened. You had giant Jenga back there.
Yes, we have it tomorrow.
It’s so stinking fun. It’s so, so fun. And one of the things I love most about coming here — aside from that fact that every time I walk in this door I feel like I’m in a room filled with the nicest people that exist in Houston — I’m always welcomed. It’s so warm … it’s like Cheers almost. You know? It gives me that Cheers feeling. It’s like a southern Cheers.
It’s funny you say that, ’cause so many people have said that. It feels like a Cheers environment for them too.
Yeah, and I love that it’s a good blend. You have gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian. Like this is the bar where everybody from every age, every race, every gender comes and hangs out.
We’re an everybody bar.
It’s awesome. I love being in a room where everybody is and where everybody is welcome. I love this bar. But anyway …
We don’t have customers. We have friends and we have family — and most of it is family. It’s very true.
So I know y’all also have a really successful Latin night.
That is a lot of fun.
You have to get here early or there will only be parking three blocks down. You know, we open on Friday at 4, but you won’t see many of the Latino dancers in here until about 10:30 or 11 o’clock. The dancers come out late, but they party when they get here. They make up for lost time when they get here. We’re open until 3 on Friday night.
That’s nice. Y’all often sell food.
You’ll have food out front or out on the patio.
That’s right. We do. We have a taco truck, but it’s not really a truck. But the taco people, have been with us for quite a while now. And they do very well out there. Everybody likes it. And then on Saturdays, of course, with the summer concert series out on the patio, we grill burgers out there.
Those are pretty good, too.
Yes, it’s a lot of fun. So, do you want to talk a little bit about the summer patio series?
It’s been the first time we’ve done it. We’ve talked about doing it for several years and finally I said, “You know what? I’m just going to do it.” We’ve had a lot of people come, great stars. In fact, you are one of our favorites.
Well, thank you so much. I’m looking forward to coming back.
And everyone loves Wendy. And everybody knows it’s Wendy. We could write a song, but it’d never sell. And we have Paige Lewis, who’s going to be the last act for the summer. She’ll be here the last week in August. And then tonight we’ve got JassyB. We’ve had Starr Jernigan. We’ve had just a number of people that have come through. So we’ve had some really good talent come through. And everyone’s enjoyed it; and I hope to continue. I’m not going to do the summer series after August. I’ll probably take a month off and let it cool down a little bit. But probably in October or November I’ll bring back the Fall because when it gets a little cooler it’s really nice on the patio. So, anyway, that’s the plan. And we’re always looking for local talent. I try my best to get Christina Wells. I called her and paged her and Facebooked her. But she’s just a busy girl right now. And we can understand why. So we’re very proud of her and wish her well and hope she goes all the way. But anyway. I was trying to get her before the summer was over. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
She’s going to come back when she can.
She’s amazing, and she’s such a great support to our community. And god, she’s so talented. She’s so stinking talented. I’m such a big fan of hers. Okay, so to get down to the big event you have coming up at the end of this month, you’re celebrating your five-year anniversary.
Unbelievable that it’s been five years; and it’s totally flown by.
You blinked, you were open, and now it’s been five years.
Some days I think it’s amazing and other days I think, what was I thinking? You know? But it’s been quite a challenge and quite a journey. And I don’t see it being over anytime soon.
I don’t either. I just think it’s going to keep getting better. So as far as the actual event, when does the party start?
Well, the party never stops here.
[Laughs] When does the anniversary party celebration begin?
It’s going to start the 23rd, on Thursday. And we’re going to have all kinds of things going on the whole week. And then Friday night, of course, will be a big celebration with our Latino night. Saturday we’ve got a show coming here with Bubbalicious, who’s the emcee. We’ve got an illusion show coming with some of the top performers in the city — actually, in the state. So, we’re looking forward to that. It’s going to totally be a sellout. There’s no doubt about it. That’ll be a dinner show, it’ll be from 7 to 9. There will be a VIP meet-and-greet. All kinds of good things that are happening for that. Really looking forward to that. It’ll be a big way to start it off. And we’ll just be continuing the party on the whole weekend.
Well, I hope we go another 50 years — if we could beat Ray Proske and be here as long as he was. You know, I’m trying my best to get Willie Nelson here. I’ve tried everything. I sent him a care package. I sent him one of our shirts — one of Esquire Ballroom’s shirts. I wrote him a nice letter — handwritten. I Fedexed it to him and said, “Just let us know next time you’re in town and we’ll send a limo to get you. We’ll take great care of you. You don’t even have to sing a song. Just stick your head in. And if we know you’re coming.”
Anyway, we never heard anything. But I know he’s not in very good health. And then Loretta Lynn, who also started here, she actually was a waitress here before she starting singing.
So I’ve been trying to get her here as well and haven’t had any luck. She’s not in good health either. So it’s been a great community, we’ve had a lot of fundraisers here for the community.
Yes, you have done some amazing things. In fact, I’ve done a few of the Houston Gay Rodeos. They have a lot of them here, too. They’re a wonderful organization, as well. Shout out to the Houston Gay Rodeos. Y’all do a lot for the community and I really just love you guys. The staff, management, owners. Top to bottom, even the patrons, they helped me with my equipment and I was like, “You don’t work here”. If you want to go out and have a good time and know that you’re going to have fun and that everyone’s going to be fun to be around and friendly, you want to come to Neon Boots.
You know, like I said, we’re an everybody bar. We try to have a variety of things for people to do. Some people don’t dance and they want to stand around and watch the other people dance.
Speaking of, you do dance lessons.
We do. We have dance lessons on Thursday nights at 7:30 when we have line dance. And then at 8:15 we have a west coast swing class that has really been hopping. We have a couple of pros that have been teaching it for us. Johnny Q and John Lindo. These guys travel all over the world teaching and judging contests for this kind of thing. So, we got very fortunate to know both of them. I’ve known John Lindo probably 25 years. He used to fill in with another organization I’m involved in, an international organization for country western dance clubs. So when he walked in here, I saw him, and he had moved here from San Francisco. I said, “Oh my god.” You know, leave the door open because you don’t know who’s going to come walking in.” And he said, “I’m looking for a place for my west coast swing class.” So I said, “You’re not looking anymore.” He said, “I hoped you were gonna say that.” So here he is teaching that, which is wonderful and we have a great class. And again, it’s a mix. More than 50% of those people will be straight people. And sometimes more than that, which is fine. And then we have Sundays every quarter. They have a big workshop that lasts for five or six hours. So, that’s very well attended. And we have some very exciting things coming up too. One of the first time we’ve ever done a pet fashion show.
Oh my god. You’re doing a pet fashion show?
Yup, it’s going to be a pet fashion show. It’s coming up in October and I know that you know Carol Wyatt and Sally Wyatt-Woodell and all those girls.
I have to come to that.
You do have to come to that. It is going to be amazing. And we’re going to get these wonderful, loving pets adopted and to good homes. But it’s going to be hysterical. So I’m looking forward to that. And then of course, we have the Queer Queens of Comedy coming back. When they come we actually sell Depends at the front door, because you’re going to pee your pants.
That’s a nice little parting gift.
We double up our Clorox that week. Anyways. That’s also going to be a dinner show. David Alcorta is going to be catering that with his wonderful Mexican food. And I heard a rumor there might be some filet mignons in there too.
Oh, I’m there for that.
So that’s going to be coming up. And then there’s the illusion show that I was talking about. And the second Saturday of every month we have the Ranch Round-Up. We’re not the usual country dance bar. We’re just not. But it’s a bunch of women that have all gotten together. Women are different than guys. You know? We nest. We get into a relationship and we nest. Guys, not so much. They really support a bar a lot more, so it’s very difficult.
And that’s one of the things I was talking about when we were in our editorial meeting — telling some of the girls what you were trying to foster here for the lesbian community is amazing because if you want to go to a lesbian bar in Houston you only have one other option, which is Pearl. And Pearl is great. But if you wanna go and relax and just meet people, you go to Neon Boots. So I think they were very intrigued by what you’re trying to build here and we’re going to get that word out hopefully so more people come.
We need the community here. We need the women to come out and support these events so we can keep doing them for the women. And they’re for the guys, too. They’re not just for the women. But women don’t have as many choices and options to go out to clubs or bars as the guys do. So trying to promote some things that would interest women and maybe get them out here is important. And I think the summer concert series has been one of those avenues. It’s been pretty successful with them; and we see some of the regulars that have continued to come. I hope that the Ranch Round-Up will be the same way. It’s only once a month so maybe the women can come out. That one night a month maybe they can drag themselves away from the TV. You know?
Neon Boot celebrates it’s fifth anniversary show on Saturday, August 25th with the Illusions Show, featuring Kara Dion, Dina Jacobs, Adeciya Iman, Christina Ross, Lauren Taylor, and reigning Miss Gay USofA Janet Fierce Andrews. That night on the patio, a live concert featuring Paige Lewis will be held. For tickets, click here.
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