Cheer Up Charlie’s is much more than a bar. Live music, themed dance parties, funky local artwork, nonprofit fundraisers, two queer organizations, and people of every gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality have all found a home within its scrappy walls. Tamara Hoover, the space’s owner, has infused Cheer Up Charlie’s with a welcoming vibe that’s made it one of the most popular queer (and straight friendly) spaces in the city.
“I wanted to create a community. I wanted to create this space where we could all hang out—gay, queer and straight,” she said.
Hoover had been working from a trailer, selling organic choc- olates and playing host to dance parties where she gave away habanero-infused margaritas. She had rented the space from the owner of Mrs. Bea’s, the Tejano bar that formerly occupied the space where Cheer Ups sits on East Sixth Street, but she sought a more permanent space in the up-and-coming neighborhood.
The landlord gave Hoover the go-ahead to move into the space after serving an eviction notice to the prior occupant, who’d fallen behind on rent. After getting a liquor license and making some physical improvements to the space, she began sell- ing beer and hosting parties during SXSW in 2010. Word spread quickly; the next few months were spent getting the space up to code, repainting, buying the necessary equipment and connect- ing with local music producers and DJs.
“I want to explore more permeable identities,” said Hoover. “It’s a space for the creative community, the queer community and our straight friends who are our allies.”
It’s a lot of hard work: forging relationships and maintaining them, attracting LGBT people who aren’t as familiar with nightlife east of I-35, and making everyone feel welcome. But Hoover, who can often be found sitting on the bar’s back patio with her girlfriend, Maggie Lea, wants everyone to know that she is, in fact, enjoying herself. “Even though we’re at the bar, we may be sitting and talking, but we are having fun.”
Although she gave up her original goal of selling sandwiches, smoothies and chocolates, something much more special developed organically at the space—which takes its name from “Cheer Up Charlie” in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. A community found itself coming together and mixing and having fun—gay men, lesbians, transgender folks and straight people—in a laid-back setting that harkens back to some of the funky bars that dot parts of queer-friendly Brooklyn.
“The best part about Cheer Up Charlies is community,” said Jeremy von Stilb, an event producer and DJ with Mouthfeel. “From day one, Tamara has stressed that her bar is a place that is safe for everyone. They once kicked a guy out for calling a patron a dirty hippie. This is not a place for negativity.”
Still, straddling several communities is challenging. The hardest part is holding onto the relationships you’ve built and being able to let go of the ones that didn’t work out, according to Hoover. “The friendships are so important,” she said. “I still am very keen on creating relationships and welcoming many dif- ferent people in. I was very idealistic that I would get the West Fourth crowd to come over. I’m okay with not grabbing every- body, but I’ve always hung out with gay men.”
Hoover added, “On rare occasions, straight guys walking by will say, ‘That’s a gay bar. We don’t wanna go there.’” Despite that, she said she felt lucky and proud of the fact that so many straight and gay people do end up mixing, talking and dancing together inside the bar.
Hoover’s path, from art teacher to bar owner, has been atypical. She taught sculpture, art, and painting at Austin High School for 11 years and was, by all accounts, a respected openly gay teacher. Even so, other teachers didn’t befriend her because she was out.
In 2006, a colleague discovered, on the Internet, artistic photographs of her taken by her then-girlfriend Celesta Danger. Hoover was escorted out of the school by the police; she resigned a year later after coming to a settlement with the school. “My sexuality has nothing to do with what I was teaching these kids.”
She moved to upstate New York, about thirty minutes from Woodstock, in 2008 to regroup. She had a lot of time to think: she wanted to do something about the lack of lesbians in Austin’s local music and nightlife scene.
While attending Sam Houston State on a softball scholarship, Hoover came out of the closet. Not comfortable with the conservative vibe at the school, she drove into Houston with her friends to explore that city’s gay scene. While earning her degrees in studio art and in kinesiology, she went to her first gay bar and had her first relationship.
“I was always the weird one there. I love music,” she said, adding that 1980s industrial was probably her favorite at the time. “I was always dancing and I would dance by myself.”
Although Hoover started the bar partially with a small inheritance she received when her grandmother passed away, she credits her mother, Mary Jo, with being her rock. “My mother is one of the most giving people on the planet. She loves me unconditionally and only wants me to succeed. She’s always my cheerleader.”
Cheer Up Charlies is also what brought her together with Maggie Lea, her girlfriend of two years. “I would come to the bar to hang out with friends and she’d always wave at me and smile—she has a winning smile—and I thought she looked super cute and pretty and I wanted to talk to her as much as possible,” said Lea, who runs Cinema East, which has screened a series of popular independent and new films on the lawn at the French Legation Museum. Lea is also the booking agent for Cheer Up Charlies.
After exchanging smiles at the bar, Hoover made Lea an almond butter chocolate and gave it to her when she paid her tab. Not long after, Lea got a message from her on Facebook: “The almond butter chocolates are asking me about you.” After an awesome first date connection, the rest was history.
“I know that Tamara accomplishes great things in a small day, but some of my best memories of her are the tiny moments,” said Lea, a film buff and new entrepreneur. “The moments we share driving around in the car—when she makes up LP-length numbers of ditties and songs and sings them all with different voices and accents—even though we are running errands, she is silly and makes it really fun for us while we’re busy.”
The two enjoy reading up on the art scene and the food scene, getting inspired by what other people are doing in different cities, and figuring out how to bring the best to Austin. According to Hoover, her hobby is work.
As a couple, they’re both constantly seeking something new, whether it’s a new film, a new DJ, a new art show, or some other way they can improve the space and bring fresh creative energy into it. Sunday date nights are typically for seeing movies or staying at home to cook dinner and watch bad TV. Hoover has a staff of 12 at the bar; her employees, who hail from all over the country, praised her universally.
Amerykah Trevino-Martinez, a bartender at Cheer Up Charlies, met Hoover about six years ago and said that her boss keeps the atmosphere light, calling her a “hard worker willing to get down in the trenches with her staff.”
Trevino-Martinez had a friend who rcently passed away, and she mentioned to Hoover, in passing, that her friend’s fam- ily was struggling financially with burial costs. Without hesitation, Hoover told her to write a check to his family on behalf of the business. “This moved me because it’s the essence of Tamara,” said Trevino- Martinez. “She’s full of kind and generous acts that rarely net a thank you or a big reward, but that’s not even something she thinks about. She does things like this because she cares about this community.” Bands and musicians and DJs earn a percentage of the bar sales, which is a fairly old-school way of doing things. Hoover said that she’s always examining ways to increase support for the people who make and produce the music: the creative class. The bar has never charged a cover, but she is considering other ways of raising money for performance artists in the space.
“That’s where the connection needs to happen,” she said. “You have a space for a creative class, and you have your com- munity that needs to support it. Let’s have an open dialogue about it.”
“She’s a bar owner but also a patron to the city’s creative class and works tire- lessly to create an open space for people to create, meet one another and get in- spired,” said von Stilb. “Every time I show up, there’s another tree with a face a on it (referencing the painted and carved artwork dotting the outdoor space) or a parachute over the patio or some sur- prise. The bar is always changing. What makes the bar queer is not just the clien- tele, but the fluidity and changing nature of the space.”
The development, gentrification, displacement and renewal that are sweeping across East Austin are, of course, their own tidal wave of change. A neighborhood that’s lacking in a range of amenities is getting plenty of shiny, new condos. Hoover isn’t sure what the future holds. The property’s landlord hopes to develop a boutique hotel in the next year or so, but Hoover is optimistic about the future of Cheer Up Charlies and is adamant about adhering to its divey aesthetic no matter where the physical location ends up. She is determined not to let the bar become a “cleaner, shinier” version of itself.
“Her willingness to invest into the people who come to the bar is unheard of,” said von Stilb. “They’re not the clien- tele; they’re part of the adventure.”
Hoover wanted to do something that was community-driven, and she’s pleased with the results so far. “I want to expand on what we’ve done in a way that the goal is easier to achieve. I definitely see Cheer Up Charlies moving, to a better space with the same staff.”
“You want to achieve a kind of cohesiveness in your community,” she continued. “It’s become a place that I always wanted to hang out at. The place that I was seeking, it has become. I want everyone to see the value.”