COVER STORY: Fierce Filmmaker
Marcus Pontello documents the rich history of Numbers Nightclub.
Heaven is a place on Earth, and it has a name: Numbers Nightclub. People have traveled around the world in search of a comparison, and the result is the same every time: There is no other place that matches a Friday night at 300 Westheimer.
That feeling is what inspired Marcus Pontello to create a film about the notorious establishment titled Friday I’m In Love. It will be screened in its entirety on Saturday, July 31, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, August 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Numbers.
The film blends personal stories with those of iconic musicians who have played at the club. Friday I’m in Love celebrates the people who ignited and sustained Numbers’ musical history and legacy of acceptance for all, amidst the backdrop of cultural intolerance. Pontello pays tribute to former owners Bruce Godwin, a flamboyant DJ extraordinaire, and Robert Burtenshaw, an introverted British video artist—two industry insiders who were best friends when they decided to buy the venue in 1987.
A supporting cast of staff, patrons, and bands such as Erasure and Ministry also share heartwarming and personal stories that reveal the evolution of the venue, while also exposing some of the difficulties Numbers and Montrose have endured over the years. LGBTQ conflicts with the police, the AIDS epidemic, and legal issues with City Hall have all been a part of the club’s legacy.
As the title implies, the film honors one of the dance club’s most active evenings.
“Friday is the big night for Numbers,” Pontello explains. “They’ve been doing ’80s nights [now called Classic Numbers] since 1991. A lot of people’s first time at Numbers is on a Friday night. Since I didn’t grow up in the ’80s, that music was all new. It was like discovering an amazing world of music that was from the generation before me. Numbers really was the unique melting pot of Houston, and it was the feeling of freedom that sucked me in. That’s what draws a lot of people in.”
Growing up in Pearland but attending the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) in Montrose, Pontello natually felt the allure of the alternative club scene as a gender-nonconforming artist.
“My love for the club originated at age 15, [when I would] go there on Friday nights for Classic Numbers. Being a student at HSPVA, Numbers was in my backyard. It was natural that I discovered it. I fell in love with it my first Friday night there. The music and people completely blew my mind,” Pontello recalls.
“It’s hard to describe. When you’re in there on a Friday night, it’s truly a melting pot of all generations, all genders, races—every subculture you can think of. For lack of a better word, it’s the closest thing to Utopia I’ve ever experienced. I’ve interviewed well over 150 people for this documentary, and every single person mentions this incredible experience of freedom and acceptance that they feel in relationship to Numbers. It’s a consistent through-line. It’s the people and the bold, emphatic feeling of freedom. ‘Come as you are, and you will not be judged.’ It’s the soul of Montrose. It’s the core of what Montrose stands for. Numbers is the surviving beat of what the neighborhood stands for,” they add.
Once the idea to create a documentary about the history of Numbers had been planted, there was no turning back. Pontello spent the next nine years collecting interviews, photographs, videos, and every other bit of recordable history to stitch the film together.
“Word-of-mouth and Facebook were a large part of the research. Asking about one person led me to more connections, which led to more connections. Plus, going there every Friday night helped. It was a domino effect. Interesting organizations in town became part of my research, too,” Pontello notes.
They utilized the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum (GCAM), which houses an archive of Houston and Texas LGBTQ history that includes a trove of original This Week in Texas magazines. Another huge help was the Botts Collection, a local archive that catalogues LGBTQ artifacts from the Houston area. Pontello also gained access to the belongings of longtime club owner Burtenshaw, who created custom music videos for the Classic Numbers nights throughout the ’90s.
As more and more time was spent collecting material for the documentary, the necessity for funding also increased. Pontello created a Kickstarter in 2015 to finance the film, which raised close to $50,000. Personal donations also rolled in, and Pontello recently started applying for grants. Even as Pontello plans the initial screenings for the film, additional funding is still needed.
“The need for funding isn’t ending just because I’m showing the film. I still don’t have all the music rights. That’s one aspect of the film that will change. Right now, there are 80 pieces of published music, and there’s no way I’m going to get all of that legally cleared. That will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That aspect of the film will evolve over time [as I can purchase more rights]. The story and the structure of the film won’t change—just the music. There will be an opportunity for donations during both screenings,” Pontello emphasizes.
Once the film shows at the end of the month, Pontello hopes Friday I’m In Love will have a future at film festivals and beyond.
“I’ve interviewed well over 150 people for this documentary, and every single person mentions this incredible experience of freedom and acceptance that they feel in relationship to Numbers.”
“Fall is film-festival submission time, and I really want to officially premiere this at South by Southwest in 2022. Of all the film festivals, that’s the one I’d love to be at the most. It makes the most sense for the project. There are other smaller festivals in Texas and in the southern United States. It would be great to take the film to Los Angeles, since [most of] the music has a connection there. I’d like to do a year of film-festival screenings,” Pontello says. “Because there is so much history, it might make sense to go to Houston archivists and LGBTQ archivists [and arrange for other local screenings]. Aside from that, after showing the documentary to the point of exhaustion in Houston, I would love for it to one day be online on Netflix or Hulu.”
Even though the film started off as a personal love letter to the famous Montrose venue, Pontello hopes everyone can find something in the film that speaks to them.
“The film is a little bit personal, because I’m telling a little bit of who I was as a teenager and why Numbers means so much. I’ve decided to tell a story which relates to being queer and growing up in the suburbs and feeling like a complete outsider. It’s personal, but a great deal of the film is historical. It celebrates Numbers, Montrose, and Houston. It’s an important story for the city. Montrose is so much a part of the city, and what went down in Montrose in the ’70s and ’80s is significant and special. I hope the film will resonate for years to come.”
Friday I’m In Love will screen in its entirety Friday, July 31, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, August 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Numbers Nightclub, 300 Westheimer. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit NumbersDocumentary.com.
This article appears in the July 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.