We came “this close” to losing a Texas musical treasure. After eight memorable years, Nina and Jay Cantu were in the final stages of closing a deal to sell the Liberty Opry, housed in the historic 1930s’ Park Theater in Downtown Liberty, the longtime home of some of the best live, family-oriented entertainment in the Gulf Coast.
“When the deal fell through, that’s when we decided not to close,” said Nina. “It turned out to be a real struggle to get the word out that we’re still open.”
At the same time, Jennifer Wooden, director of the Humble Civic Center and the Charles Bender Performing Arts Center, made a call to Nina and Jay.
“We heard there was a possibility they might close their doors and the Humble City Council asked me to reach out,” said Wooden.
Now The Bender and the Liberty Opry are partnering to bring ‘50s and ‘60s recording artist “Jivin’” Gene Bourgeois to The Bender stage Saturday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15.
“He’s a terrific ‘young man’ of 80 years,” joked Jay. “Jivin’ Gene had several Top 100 recordings in the early ‘60s including ‘Breaking Up is Hard to Do’ and ‘Release Me.’ He’s famous for what we call his ‘swamp pop’ style. Lake Houston will love him.”
Atascocita resident Vicky Knobloch, comedian “Booger Lee,” and Jay and the Liberty Opry Band will join Jivin’ Gene on The Bender stage.
“We plan to bring a little of the Liberty Opry magic,” said Nina. “We have a saying: ‘When you walk through our doors, you become a part of our family,’ and that’s what’s going to happen at The Bender on Sept. 21. Lake Houston is going to get a top-notch band backing up some talented performers. You’ll hear classics and the new stuff, too.”
Nina and Jay know music. Nina said Jay has an awesome voice and he admits to performing his entire life, singing on the Nashville Network, at the famous Gilley’s in Pasadena and, in fact, all over Texas. Jay says he only sings the “good stuff” from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s and songs of performers like the Platters and the Beach Boys.
And, on the first Thursday of every month, Jay sings karaoke style at Los Compadres Restaurant in Hardin.
“It hasn’t been an easy road, but Nina and I really believe, after the sale fell through and then Jennifer and the City of Humble contacted us, that there was a bigger hand in this than just us,” said Jay. “When you see the folks who come here and how happy they are when they leave, well, that’s quite a reward for Nina and me.”
Jay and the Opry band have been performing outside the Opry recently.
“In May, we entertained at a wedding,” said Jay. “It was so much fun. I can tell you, after we performed at the wedding, if we’d been paid in thank-yous, we’d be rich.”
In addition to the Sept. 21 date, Jay and Nina are bringing the Liberty Opry back to The Bender stage on Saturday, Nov. 23. Texas native Lisa Layne will perform along with local artist Andy Bradt, Trisha Gainey, Lee and, of course, Jay and the Liberty Opry Band.
“We’ll see how Lake Houston likes our Liberty Opry shows at The Bender,” said Jay. “If they do well and we’re invited back, we’ll plan some excellent shows for 2020.”
Wooden and the City of Humble are looking forward to Jay and Nina bringing their Liberty Opry family to Humble.
“The Cantus had told us they’d heard so many great things about The Bender from their patrons and they were delighted that I’d reached out to them,” said Wooden. “We have a beautiful theater. They have a great following. This will be a wonderful partnership.”
It will be a lively and energetic Bender Stage for the rest of 2019. The inspirational Jade Simmons returns with part two of her performance, “The Sound of Breakthrough,” Nov. 9. The Liberty Opry returns Nov. 23, with Layne and the Liberty Opry Band. The City of Humble presents the Michael Hix Christmas Party Dec. 14. Cost for each event is $15.