In August 2013, six LGBTQ Houstonians launched a labor of love when they opened Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon in northwest Houston. It now ranks as the largest LGBTQ country-and-western dance club in Texas.
By industry standards, the 11,000-square-foot building that houses Neon Boots, at 11410 Hempstead Highway between Antoine and 34th Street, presented a challenge. If “location, location, location” is the secret to success, Neon Boots sat seven miles from Montrose in a semi-industrial area sprinkled with hot-sheet motels.
“The BRB was irreplaceable, but many of us found we were lost without it. Then we located the Hempstead property.”
And prior to the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell marriage-equality ruling, Houston’s LGBTQ community tended to avoid “outside the loop” nightclubs. Would the community support this outlier?
“If we build it, will they come?” is how co-owner Debbie Storrs describes the early uncertainty. “We just didn’t know what to expect. Then the first night, 2,300 people showed up. The parking lot was packed, and parked cars lined Hempstead. Everything that could go wrong did, but it was amazing—the most thrilling night of my life.”
Five years later, under the six current owners—Storrs, Jim Gerhold, Rodney Meyers, Fernando Garcia, Ron McLeroy, and Jim Daily—Neon Boots continues to grow. On Aug. 24 and 25, the nightclub celebrated its 5th anniversary with a a resounding “Yee-haw!”
Inspired by two legends
Prior to Neon Boots, the Esquire Ballroom occupied the Hempstead Highway site from 1955 to 1995, and helped to launch the careers of country-music stars including Patsy Cline, George Jones, Charlie Pride, Loretta Lynn (who also worked there as a waitress), and Willie Nelson (who got his first break there with his tune “Nightlife” that was inspired by his job as an Esquire bartender.)
Neon Boots’ dance floor and stage are both original—the very same stage that Patsy Cline stood on when she first belted out Nelson’s song, “Crazy.” And if all this isn’t enough to blow a C&W fan’s skirt up, the original phone booth that Elvis Presley used to call his business manager and fire him sits to the right of the main bar.
But there is another chapter of Houston’s C&W history that warrants a mention here. All six of the original Neon Boots owners were passionate about C&W dancing, and found themselves orphaned when the popular Montrose club Brazos River Bottom (BRB) closed in March 2013 after serving Houston’s LGBTQ community for 35 years. The loss of the BRB, with its old dance floor, pool tables, disco ball, and welcoming atmosphere, left a hole in many hearts.
“Jim Gerhold and I always had a dream to own a country gay bar,” Storrs says. “We used to stand around together at the BRB talking about what we would do with it. Then the BRB shuttered, so we started looking for locations.”
“We never intended to replace the BRB,” Gerhold says. “The BRB was irreplaceable, but many of us found we were lost without it. Then we located the Hempstead property. When we first entered to have a look, there was no electricity and all the walls were black. We stumbled around with flashlights, but the minute our feet touched the dance floor, we knew it was destiny. We signed the lease.”
Five years old and just a babe
Today, Neon Boots is a colorful cavern of non-stop fun. What the owners created is not just a “gay and lesbian C&W bar,” but an “everybody bar, where all feel welcome,” Storrs says. “We don’t have customers here; we have family
On any given night, 30 to 40 percent of the patrons are non-LGBTQ people having a gay ol’ time. “You can always tell the straight folks,” Storrs says, laughing. “When those couples first walk in, they are standing so close that they could be wearing the same pants. They don’t know what to expect. But they are usually the ones who close the place down. Then they return with their neighbors and friends to share their find.”
The dancehall has also become a tourist destination, frequently drawing visitors from overseas. An English film crew even shot a documentary about the club a few years ago.
And why not? There is always something happening: live music, drag shows, karaoke, bingo, steak nights, Latin nights, C&W dance lessons, and more.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be there on one of the occasions when they bring in a mechanical bull. After you give it a whirl, you can pick up your “I Got Bucked at Neon Boots” T-shirt. They’ve become collector’s items.
The space is also a favorite for weddings and receptions. Melissa Flories is the founder and president of Texas United Charities (TUC), a nonprofit that raises funds for LGBTQ support services. TUC’s members pay dues to help underwrite numerous events, allowing 100 percent of proceeds to go to organizations such as Lazarus House, Lesbians Over the Age of Fifty (LOAF), and the Montrose Center’s LGBTQ Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.
“We hold all our parties at Neon Boots,” Flories says. “There is plenty of free parking, and the space is so versatile. There is nothing we can’t do there— galas, casino nights, extravaganzas. The staff is so helpful, and the owners are such supportive sponsors. We like to think of it as a partnership. We would never go anywhere else.”
What: Neon Boots 5th Anniversary Celebration
When: 7 p.m. on August 25
Where: Neon Boots Dancehall & Saloon, 11410 Hempstead Road
More info: Facebook.com/events/484326912026554
This article appears in the August 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.