How One 1960s East Austin Nightclub Set the Stage for a Changing Austin
Charles Urdy, 82, met his first wife at Charlie’s Playhouse, a now-shuttered club on East 11th Street in Austin.
“I just walked in,” said Urdy, a former Austin City Council member and professor at Huston-Tillotson University. “A friend of mine and his girlfriend and this young lady were sitting at a table together, and I just walked in.”
After a few years, “walking in” to Charlie’s Playhouse would become a sore point for some locals. But when business owner Charlie Gilden opened the place in the late 1950s (sometime around 1958), it was a blues club entertaining the predominantly black neighborhood in East Austin.
“I think that Charlie’s Playhouse came along at a very unique time in Austin’s history,” Urdy said.
In 1956, the University of Texas welcomed its first black students. Just four years earlier, the fire station across the street from Charlie’s Playhouse became home to Austin’s first black firefighters.
Yet despite the appearance of crumbling racial barriers, the nightclub’s early years reflected the surrounding neighborhood.
“Playing at Charlie’s Playhouse, the place was packed – and it was all black,” said Henry “Blues Boy” Hubbard, speaking with Roger Gatchet in 2008 as part of a University of Texas oral history project. Starting in 1958, Hubbard led the house band at Charlie’s – Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets.
But the patronage soon shifted. Hubbard’s band covered popular radio hits of the time, and soon Gilden was fielding calls from UT fraternities to book the band.
“So, the fraternity brothers would call the Playhouse and want to book Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets,” Hubbard said. “It’s probably not a fraternity house out there today we haven’t played, including female fraternities.”
Soon, the white students started making their way east.
“We were kind of into country music at the time,” said Paula Johnson, who was a student a UT from 1964 to 1969. Johnson would go to Charlie’s with her then-boyfriend, the man who would become her first husband.
“But at Charlie’s it would be pretty much R&B, rock and roll. Everybody would get up and dance. That was quite a thing. Really, the joint was jumping," she said. "It was a very popular place.”
Some university students would call ahead to reserve tables at Charlie’s. That, said Urdy, was not something that people who lived in the area normally did.
“You’d go walking in there in then look over here and the whole area had ‘reserved’ on it, and then you find out it's for white kids,” Urdy said. “Oh, god, folks just went berserk. It was a huge problem for Charlie. But he’s making money.”
Urdy said, to those who knew him, Gilden was a businessman first and foremost, though, and he didn't want to alienate his neighbors.
“Back in those days, fraternities, in particular, a lot of those kids had a lot of money, and they’d spend every bit of it. Unlike the average working-class person in East Austin who had a limited budget," Urdy said.
Hubbard said word got around that the club was catering to white folks.
“[People said,] ‘His club is now open for whites. And if you’re black, he’ll make you get up.’ Well, he did. But not in the sense they put out,” Hubbard said. “If you came to their club and you were black and you [were] sitting at a table that was for five, he would ask you to move, to move you over here where there was a table for two. Because he had five whites that wanted that table, see.”
According to Urdy, Huston-Tillotson students began picketing outside Charlie’s. Tommy Wyatt, publisher of The Villager, remembered it the same way.
“Their frustration was the fact that they couldn’t get anywhere in town and entertain but these students could,” Wyatt said. “The little space they had, the place they had to go, other people had access to that.”
It’s not clear when or how the demonstrations ended, but soon Hubbard said Friday and Saturday nights at Charlie’s were almost entirely white.
“It would be like 98 percent white,” he said.
The club attracted some high-profile visitors. According to a March 1965 Statesman article titled, "White House Staffers Regain Missing Coats," two of President Lyndon B. Johnson's aides reported that their jackets stolen from Charlie's Playhouse during a White House visit to Central Texas. According to police at the time, the coats were swiped by mistake.
Eventually, Charlie’s shut down in the early 1970s. When asked why the place had closed, Hubbard said because of integration.
"It’s plain and simple. If you hear it from anybody else, they’ll probably think of something stupid to tell you that happened.”
As places previously off-limits to black people, including nightclubs, began to open to them, Charlie’s saw those who came to be entertained leave. Another member of The Jets, Donald “Duck” Jennings, summed it up in a 2008 interview with Gatchet: “All the customers and the patrons, they left and went across the freeway.”
At the same time, Austin Independent School District decided to shutter Anderson High School in East Austin, as students more than a decade earlier had begun to integrate schools throughout the city. Many in the neighborhood said this meant losing an element that bound the community together. So while gains were being made, Urdy said, there was also a lot to lose.
“The University of Texas undergraduate school had just integrated, so everybody was pressing for that,” Urdy said. “But then in the nightclub scene, you’re getting integration in the opposite direction and it's kind of messing up your space. So it’s a difficult time to maneuver through for a lot of people because they don’t know exactly what shape to get in. Am I supposed to be for this?”
In place of Charlie's Playhouse at the corner of East 11th Street now stands a four-story apartment building. Save for the Victory Grill, there's little evidence of the music scene that at one time dominated the area.
"It's not an entertainment center for the community like it was when Charlie's Playhouse was there," Urdy said.
Meantime, up on East 12th Street, community leaders are working to assemble a merchants association. The hope is to provide local and longtime business owners with more resources and protections.