Charlie's Playhouse

Dates of Operation: 
1955 - 1970
Charlie’s Playhouse was a legendary jazz and blues club on 1206 East 11th Street, in Austin.  The story of Charlie’s Playhouse is one of great personal successes, hot music, a culturally thriving community, and eventually the racial politics of desegregation. [img]/cms/sites/all/modules/wysiwyg/plugins/break/images/spacer.gif[/img] When Charlie Earnest Gilden, an African American businessman, purchased the Show Bar in 1958 the East Side of Austin was flourishing with African American owned businesses.    Especially on the weekends, large crowds of five or six thousand people enjoyed the jazz and blues clubs on 11th and 12th streets.   Charlie Gilden was a major force in expanding the success of the clubs in the area, drawing both African American and eventually white crowds.   In 1958 Charlie did not only purchase the Show Bar, he purchased the whole block, including a barber shop, cleaners, and a liquor store.  Charlie was a shrewd businessman, who wanted to make a true success out of the club.  When Charlie purchased the Show Bar it already had a house band called the Gus Poole Trio, which played piano jazz.  Jazz was becoming harder to market to the crowds flocking to the area, and Gus Poole left town.  Charlie had heard of a young musician and jet mechanic, H.L. “Blues Boy” Hubbard.  He asked Hubbard if he would like to be the band leader of a new house band for Charlie’s Playhouse.  Hubbard agreed, and in reference to his job as a jet mechanic, named his new band The Jets. The Playhouse, as it was known, was one of the swankiest clubs in the area.  The Jets wore tuxedoes, and Charlie’s wife Ivy made certain that the band behaved professionally while on stage.   Every blues or jazz star who came to Austin made an appearance at the Playhouse, including Tina and Ike Turner.           Charlie didn’t stop with the Playhouse.  In 1960 he purchased an after-hours club called Cheryl Ann’s.  He renamed it Ernie’s Chicken Shack, and The Jets played there after Charlie’s Playhouse closed for the night.  At that time, clubs legally selling alcohol had to close by 1 am on Saturday nights.   The Chicken Shack stayed open all night, with The Jets playing well into morning hours for standing-room-only crowds.  Charlie hosted secret gambling in the back room and served bootleg liquor.  Austin, like the rest of Texas, was legally racially segregated until the late 1960’s.  The blues and jazz clubs on the East Side thrived in part because of the segregation policies of the city.  The African American community was not allowed to go to other areas of the city for entertainment, and so they patronized the businesses in the immediate neighborhood.   The Playhouse was among the first clubs on the East Side to allow white patrons.  White students from the University of Texas became interested in blues music in part because of a television show called “Now Dig This.”  The show featured African American blues artists every Saturday morning. According to Blues Boy Hubbard, “…what happen was, they started calling the East Side clubs for the bands that they see on TV, you know…Then somebody would, whoever it was, told them, 'Call Charlie's Playhouse,'  you know, and they did.”    Charlie’s business boomed with this new audience, but his success wasn’t without controversy.  Fraternities from the University of Texas would reserve tables for large groups, leaving little room for the African American neighborhood audience.   Charlie decided to have a “Soul Night” on Mondays for his African American audience while Friday and Saturday nights were 95% white, which many people in the African American community found insulting.  The Playhouse was packed, but Charlie didn’t allow African Americans and whites to mingle with each other inside the club.   Once the white audiences came into the club, African American audiences were shut out.  The Playhouse was innovative in that both races were allowed inside, but once inside the club the races were segregated. When whites filled the club, because of the racialized landscape in the city, African Americans could not go to other sections of the city and hear music.Tommy Wyatt, a young African American man from the East Side neighborhood, remembers the growing tensions of the situation at Charlie’s Playhouse:  “…the thing about it was that because he had such a large clientele of U.T. students on Friday and Saturday nights African Americans could hardly get in the club, although it sat right in the middle of our community... We couldn't go into any club on the west side, but yet we couldn't go to our own clubs on the east side on Friday and Saturday night. It was the biggest club in Austin, for East Austin, was Charlie's Playhouse and we couldn't go there on Friday and Saturday night.”  The new white audience was spending large sums of money in the club.  Being a businessman first, Charlie wanted to keep this new crowd happy.  He was known to have asked people who were not spending money, often African Americans, to give up their seats to someone who had more money to spend, often young white students. However, Charlie did not discriminate.  He would ask African American or white to leave a seat if they were not spending any money.   Many people from the neighborhood felt betrayed by Charlie.    Some young African American students from Huston-Tillotson College decided to boycott the Playhouse and Ernie’s Chicken Shack to protest Charlie’s policies.   Despite the boycott, the African American and white crowds continued to come, and when the Playhouse was too full, they went on to other clubs in the area, like The IL Club, and Victory Grill. Eventually however, desegregation spelled the end for the Playhouse and many of the other clubs on the East Side.  African Americans had opportunities to move to new neighborhoods and hold new jobs. The musicians were able to play at clubs in other parts of the city, and ironically the once thriving neighborhood began to see many of its African American owned businesses close.   While desegregation provided numerous opportunities for African Americans, it also changed forever the landscapes of the previously segregated neighborhoods.  Charlie closed the Playhouse in 1970, with Blues Boy Hubbard and The Jets playing out the last set.  He was able to keep the Chicken Shack open until his death in 1979.  Musician Lavelle White summed up her memories of Charlie’s Playhouse: “Everybody went there, every weekend night.  You could hardly find a place to sit.  Dancing and music.  Gambling going on in the back room, yes there was.  They had bootleg liquor and Blues Boy Hubbard and The Jets.  It was wonderful.”   Please visit our audio section to hear some of the memories from people who visited Charlie’s Playhouse.       1206 E 11th St     "The blues: I always heard the blues you know and we've always had some very good blues players here. What happened, the guitar--the amplified guitar--became very, very popular. Charlie Gilden, when he finally opened Charlie's Playhouse and put in, installed a house band with Hubbard on guitar, that really put a dent in the acoustic bands ability to get work. Because everybody wanted to hear the guitar, and amplified sound and you know they wanted things loud for dancing and so forth. Charlie Gilden operated a club, as I said on 7th street and I think somewhere before that but then he moved to Chicon, right off of 12th street and then he moved from there up to a club on East 11th street that became Charlie's Playhouse. Before that, he had several different-- it had several different owners or operators; it was a showbar at one time. This building was very popular, it was a popular place. It always had its crowd, but when Charlie got it and renovated it and expanded it, it really became a mecca of both black and white people seeking entertainment at night. And he had an after-hours club where they would go after the legal time for drinking. It was called the Sheryl Ann club and it was out beyond the city limits but anyway that's another different story." from an interview with Pat Murphy conducted by Harold McMillan


1206 E 11th St
Austin, TX, 78702

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Photograph of Charlie's Playhouse