July 26, 2021

A New Documentary Explores the History of Houston Nightclub Numbers

Almost a decade in the making, a new documentary that tells the story of one of Houston’s most iconic nightclubs is set to make its debut this month.

Called Friday I’m In Love, the film focuses on the decades-long history of legendary Montrose nightclub Numbers, and will make its world premiere at the club on Saturday, July 31. Over the past nine years, filmmaker Marcus Pontello dug deep into the club’s story, exploring the role it played in Houston’s gay rights movement in the 1980s, the AIDS crisis of the 1990s, and its sometimes shaky — but long-enduring — legacy as one of the city’s most important cultural icons.

Numbers, which first opened in 1978 as a gay disco, is one of the oldest continually operating alternative clubs in the United States. Throughout the years, the club has developed a reputation as a haven for misfits of all ages — queer people, weirdos, art kids, punks, goths, and any other kind of outsider — thanks to its accepting ethos and 18-and-up age limit.

According to Pontello, they wer one of those misfit kids. Originally from Pearland and now working as a clothing designer, Pontello attended the High School for Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) when it was still located in the Montrose. Friends took them to Numbers for the first time in 2003, for a Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert. Pontello quickly discovered Classic Numbers, the long-running Friday night dance party that still plays New Wave, goth, industrial, and other deep musical cuts from the 1980s.

For Pontello, who is gender non-conforming and uses they/them pronouns, the experience was transformative. “It just changed my life,” they said. “Kind of like HSPVA, I was in an accepting environment where I could dance all night and express myself and not be fucked with. And that’s how the love affair started.”

After high school, Pontello left Houston, living in places like Los Angeles and New Orleans, where they worked in TV and film and the wardrobe industry. But even with the renowned nightlife in both of those cities, Pontello could never find a place like Numbers. They started to think of a way to share the unique — and uniquely Houston — story of Numbers, and the idea for a documentary was born.

Pontello started their research for the film by finding the nightclub’s original owner, Beverley Wren, who founded the venue in the mid 1970s as The Million Dollar City Dump. Wren, who died in 2014, originally operated the club as a dinner theatre of sorts, later transforming it into the gay dance club everyone now knows as Numbers. The name is, apparently, a reference to the fact that the club was a good place to score a potential mate’s phone number in the days before cell phones and the internet.

Bruce Godwin, who owned a local record store and regularly DJed at the club, and Robert Burtenshaw, a British video artist, bought the business in 1987. It was thanks to them that Numbers gained a reputation as a concert venue, often hosting up-and-coming and underground bands before they were known on a national basis. Godwin also hired Wes Wallace, who has DJ’d the Friday night dance party Classic Numbers nearly every week since 1991.

But for Pontello, Numbers isn’t just a place for music. After interviewing Wren, the floodgates opened, and Pontello quickly learned about the venue’s four-decade importance as a gathering place for Houston LGBTQ+ community.

For the film, Pontello pored over the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History, and spent hours reading issues of This Week in Texas magazine, the city’s now-defunct gay alt-weekly. Pontello also got access to the venue’s archives, which included promotional videos created by Burtenshaw, and interviewed more than 200 people for the film. To complete the film, they applied for grants, and launched a GoFundMe in 2015 to help finish the film.

“I never wanted to just make a music documentary,” Pontello says. “There’s incredible historical and musical legacy stuff that gets fleshed out, but at the heart of it really is this beacon of acceptance. Literally everyone said the same thing about why Numbers is important to them — ‘It’s accepted me more than any where else has in Houston.”

With the wealth of material, and Pontello’s lack of experience as a new filmmaker, the process took a long time. In the meantime, the venue itself suffered setbacks. Rumors of Numbers’ closure or sale pop up occasionally, including a listing in 2010. In 2013, longtime owner Robert Burtenshaw died by suicide. (Rudi Bunch, who was a staff member at Numbers for many years. has owned the club since Burtenshaw’s death.) And in March of 2020, Numbers was forced to close, like many other Texas bars and restaurants, during the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The club reopened just a few weeks ago, and the Friday Night Classic Numbers dance party celebrated its 30th anniversary on July 2, playing to a whole new generation of young outsiders. It’s unclear exactly what its future holds, but Pontello does believe that the bar’s streak of longevity will continue. “Numbers is continuing to evolve every Friday,” Pontello said. “It will continue to evolve for many, many years. The story is not finished.”

The July 31 screening of Friday I’m In Love is sold out, but there are still tickets available for a second screening on Sunday, August 1. Click here for more info.

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