Amidst a sea of creative minds, UT alumna Maggie Lea and Tamara Hoover found each other through a shared appreciation of music, the LGBTQ community and each other. In a matter of time, their partnership gave rise to one of Austin’s signature venues — Cheer Up Charlies.
“We met, and it just felt like we were on the same entrepreneurial wave,” said Lea, co-owner of Cheer Up Charlies. “We very organically became friends and then partners.”
Located on Red River Street, Cheer Up Charlies is an LGBTQ bar and music venue that showcases local musicians and hosts events promoting inclusion and community.
In 2009, Cheer Up Charlies began as a food truck on the former lot of Ms. Bea’s on East Sixth Street. Hoover sold handmade raw chocolates and sandwiches, but financially, the truck wasn’t able to support her. When Ms. Bea’s entire lot went on the market, Hoover jumped on the opportunity to settle into the larger space.
The bar opened the week of SXSW in March 2010 with little to no funds. Concert organizer Todd Patrick helped Hoover set up and prepare for shows. Hoover said this was the beginning of live music at her venue.
“Todd came and said, ‘You need to build a stage here, and this is what you need as far as sound equipment,’” Hoover said. “I watched him activate that space, and it really inspired me.”
Hoover’s developed passion for live music led her to collaborate with Lea, who began helping her book music gigs. At the time, Lea was curating Cinema East, an annual film series, but was searching for another creative outlet. Though Austin’s mainstream music scene is saturated with big name artists and festivals, Lea makes an effort to focus on booking local bands.
“I’ve lived here a long time, and I just remember making friends and meeting people (through shows), and I think local music does that the best,” Lea said.
For Hoover and Lea, who both identify as members of the LGBTQ community, making the bar feel inclusive is personal. Brian Almaraz, longtime bar manager of Cheer Up Charlies, said the establishment offers a progressive environment not found at most establishments.
“We really create a culture where everyone feels welcome,” Almaraz said. “It’s where like-minded and un-like-minded individuals can share and progress their thoughts and ideas.”
But the duo’s ideas aren’t always so well received. As the sole female music venue owners in Austin, Lea said they face difficulties male bar owners don’t necessarily encounter.
“We’ll be at very official meetings, and we’ll offer ideas, and the guys will just kind of be like, ‘Alright,’ and move on,” Lea said. “When working with men, there’s a lot of shutdown, because they have this way of just taking over the conversation. It happens all the time to us.”
Though they relocated to a booming portion of Red River Street in 2013, Lea said four years later the venue still struggles to recapture the same spirit and crowd their old location drew.
Despite this, the two still look forward to a revival of the community they know and love, especially in the wake of the current political climate.
“It can be disheartening at times, but I can definitely sense our community coming back,” Hoover said. “The queer community is really good about activating our voices, and we stand up and fight for what we believe in. I would feel extremely successful running this business if I knew that people were using this space to its maximum capacity.”