A clubhouse without walls

When pandemic precluded indoor gatherings, Violet Crown Clubhouse owners took the party outside

The Clubhouse (left) hosts a night of live music and an impromptu viewing party  of President-elect Joe Biden's acceptance speech on Nov 7.

Courtesy of the Violet Crown Clubhouse.

The Clubhouse (left) hosts a night of live music and an impromptu viewing party of President-elect Joe Biden’s acceptance speech on Nov 7.

Evie Barnard, staff reporter

The Violet Crown Clubhouse never had one specific purpose. That was its purpose. Located in the center of Austin’s Crestview neighborhood, the ice cream store/ coffeeshop/arcade/bar/party room/ concessions stand was built to be whatever the people wanted it to be.

“The Violet Crown Clubhouse was always meant to evolve,” said Mike Levigne, co-owner and local Crestview resident. “It was meant to become whatever the community expressed a need for. I wanted it to be a place where we could say ‘yes’ whenever someone came to us with something they wanted to do.”

Since its grand opening in June of 2018, the Clubhouse has said ‘yes,’ to a wide assortment of wildly different events. They hosted Oktoberfest, a community event raising money for Brentwood Park through the celebration of beer, sausages and pretzels. Then came a funeral for John Becker, longtime employee of the neighboring IGA grocery store. Later that year, the Clubhouse became a pop-up antiques and handmade Christmas market with an on-site Santa and a line of delighted children. And they hosted, as Levigne said, ¨lots and lots of birthday parties.¨

On the morning of Nov 14, the Violet Crown Clubhouse hosted its first ever “Drag Queen Storytime.” Local Queen Lady Hughes came and read aloud the book Red: a Crayon’s Story. “I had never seen a real drag queen before,” said Sonya Barnard, a third-grader at Gullett Elementary School. “It was very exciting. I hope the Clubhouse does more of these.” Photo courtesy of the Violet Crown Clubhouse.

But that was before a global pandemic. COVID-19 made these indoor gatherings no longer possible. In response, the Clubhouse owners brought them outside. Positive feedback from the neighborhood made it obvious that this new approach was going to be a success.

“We get a great crowd every time,” says manager Sheran Clarke. “It’s just enough people to feel like an event, but not too many to feel unsafe. I think the neighborhood is really grateful to have a place like this right now. Folks are seeing that it is a space where families can come and hang out together and give a sense of normalcy while still remaining socially distant.”

Thanks to the safe environment provided by the Clubhouse, families and neighbors have been able to stay connected during quarantine.

“As humans, we’re supposed to congregate and be able to have group experiences,” Levigne said. “Not having that opportunity is hard. So my hope is to bring that here to the Clubhouse. It’s not about the events, but about creating the shared experience.”

HALLOWEEN NIGHT

It’s 4 p.m. on Halloween afternoon, and the Clubhouse has already begun celebrating. The focus of the evening is not only costumes and candy, but luau-themed festivities in honor of Salty Cargo, the new Hawaiian restaurant on Palmer Lane.

It may be that in two months the Clubhouse will be an entirely different place, but that’s good. Being nimble in business often equals success, and I think that’s why we’re still here.”

— co-owner Kelly Chappelle

“‘Salty Cargo had just opened up and they were really trying to get the word out to the neighborhood,” Clarke said. “We did a little pop-up restaurant with them. We had food all day for people to come and eat.”

The restaurant set up a grill, instantly attracting a line of customers. Plates containing glazed chicken and charred vegetables were passed around. Parents sat and ate and chatted while children played in the background. Everyone kept their distance of course, which means, no touching or hugs, but smiles blanketed the space, even if they were hidden underneath masks.

“Everyone was conscious of each other,” co-owner Kelly Chappell said. “There were no issues of people not wearing masks or overcrowding. It’s really helpful to be part of a neighborhood that’s so aware of keeping everyone safe.”

By six o’clock, the sun had set. A band called Darren Murphy and the Great Pumpkins performed for the outdoor party-goers, playing a library of loud classic rock songs that only people 35 and older seemed to know the words to.

A constant flow of children came and went, busy trick or treating. They returned with bags of candy and ruffled costumes, candy wrappers left lying on the ground and soon-to-be chocolate stained mouths covered by masks.

ELECTION CELEBRATION

In mid-November, neighbors gathered at the Clubhouse to watch Joe Biden and Kamala Harris accept their positions as the future president and vice president of the United States.

“It was very very impromptu,” manager Sheran Clarke said. “We had already planned to have a band play that night, but when we found out Biden was giving a speech, we decided to project it. We announced it through just a few Nextdoor messages and Twitter but ended up getting a great crowd.”

Employees of Salty Cargo, a Hawaiian restaurant on Palmer Lane (right), set up their booth on Halloween. Their pop up restaurant served grilled Hawaiian food while the Clubhouse hosted a luau-themed party. Photo courtesy of the Violet Crown Clubhouse.

The speech was projected onto a brick wall. Families came to watch. Some stood safely distanced while others sat in their vehicles drive-in-movie style. Children and adults alike were transfixed by the bright screen, watching the future of the nation unfold.

“It was like a scene in a movie,” Levigne said. “People were happy and dancing and families were holding each other, crying. There was just a giant sense of relief throughout the crowd.”

After the speech, the celebration continued. Clubhouse employees handed out popcorn and ice cream while people stood and talked. Sparklers and bottle rocket fireworks left over from the Fourth of July added to the festivities of the night. In the background, a band played, and even after they had left, booming music could be heard through loudspeakers.

“The whole night was very emotionally moving,” Clarke said. “I think a lot of people there felt like a weight had been lifted, and being able to feel that among the community– it was very impactful.”

THE FUTURE OF THE CLUBHOUSE

Like the pandemic, the future of the Clubhouse is unknown. Since the beginning of the pandemic, their business model has changed drastically. Chappell predicts that it “will continue to change.”

“It may be that in two months the Clubhouse will be an entirely different place,” Chappelle said. “But that’s good. Being nimble in business often equals success, and I think that’s why we’re still here.”

I want to be a service, not in a constant state of needing charity. … Ultimately it’s going to be up to the communities to decide if [the Clubhouse] will stay open.”

— co-owner Mike Levigne

He believes any adaptations will only make the business stronger.

“Looking back a year from now, we will be grateful for the pandemic,” Chappell said. “It allowed the neighborhood to utilize all the amenities nearby, and brought attention to the Clubhouse. The fact that we can function as a community center in the middle of a pandemic means we can certainly do it when things are back to normal.”

Though no one can be sure what normal will look like, the Clubhouse owners have plans for when it arrives. Mike wants to host bigger, better shows and lots more birthday parties. Kelly wants to have a full calendar and be open for more hours.

Ultimately, it will be up to the neighborhood to determine if the Clubhouse is still around when things go back to normal. Winter is coming up, and the owners of the Violet Crown Clubhouse are scared about what that may entail for business.

“We won’t be able to be outside anymore,” Levigne said. “And heaters can be expensive; it’s scary: we don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

They hope that their customers will continue to support them, even if things get tough, in order for the Clubhouse to keep its (out)doors open to the community.

“People have been super supportive, and are really trying to help,” Levigne said. “But I don’t want to burn them out. I want to be a service, not in a constant state of needing charity. The Clubhouse is something I’m happy to host, but ultimately it’s going to be up to the communities to decide if we will stay open.”