A reader asks our Austin Answered project: “Was the Continental Club a sleazy topless bar back in the early 1960s? I remember having a roommate in 1963 who danced there.”
Yes. What was founded by Morin Scott in 1957 on South Congress Avenue as a swanky jazz supper club became by the early ’60s what has been variously described as a “burlesque,” “strip club” or “topless bar.”
Martin Schuler took over the lease in the late 1960s and turned it into a neighborhood tavern, according to the Handbook of Texas. He purchased the club in the 1970s and leased it out. That’s when it became a music venue again. Mark Pratz and J’nette Ward operated it during the 1980s before it was made over by Steve Wertheimer, the current owner, in 1987 as part of an effort to revive some of the club’s ’50s allure.
On his Austin Clubland website, music journalist and historian Michael Corcoran reports that the building had an earlier history as a laundromat in the 1940s. He also reminds us that during the tawdry ’60s, happy hour ran from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. — “That’s not a misprint” — and that it briefly served as a disco.
Now, about the striking image that accompanies this story. It is not what it seems.
“It was spring of 1993, almost exactly 25 years ago from today,” wrote Andrew Shapter, photographer and documentary maker, when we asked to republish it. “It was a Sunday and at that time, very few people were around (unlike today). I was doing a portrait session on South Congress when rain interrupted the session and forced me to reschedule my client.”
The roll of black and white film in his camera had a single frame left.
“I was aiming my camera up towards the Continental Club sign just as the sun had broken through the clouds,” Shapter wrote. “It was a near perfect photo. But just before I snapped the picture, a guy named Steve, the iconic club owner, popped out and said: ‘You’d get a much better picture from the roof.’”
Next thing he knew, Wertheimer escorted him to the roof.
“Just seconds before I snapped it, a lone vintage motorcycle pulled out from a side street into the center of the shot,” Shapter wrote. “Flash forward to years later, The New York Times was doing a travel story on South Austin. The photo caption read ‘The Continental Club, circa 1960.’
“I took it as a compliment.”