#3 Charlie’s Playhouse/ Ernie’s Chicken Shack
You can be in any club during any era seeing any act. That’s the game. Some might wish they were at the Armadillo when Bruce Springsteen or Van Morrison played all night. Maybe Nirvana at Liberty Lunch, Iggy at Club Foot, James Brown at the Austin Opera House, Sonic Youth at the Continental Club.
My fantasy gig is catching Freddie King at Charlie’s Playhouse on E. 11th, then following after midnight to Charlie Gildon’s afterhours joint at 1167 Webberville Road. Put me in a ripped vinyl booth at Ernie’s Chicken Shack (called Lou Ann’s until 1960) with a bootleg bottle of hooch on the table and Freddie ripping “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” on his cherry red Gibson guitar. Put me there in 1962 and I’ll have lived a full life.
Ernest Charles Gildon was a businessman who didn’t just buy a building, he bought the 1200 E. 11th Street block from Tony Von, the DJ/promoter who’d moved to Taylor, in 1955. Gildon replaced Von’s Show Bar at 1206 E. 11th Street with Charlie’s Playhouse, which he’d originally opened in a tiny joint at 12th and Chicon. The new room was made for live music and dancing, so Gildon hired Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets (so named because Hubbard had worked on planes at Bergstrom AFB) as his house band. Local bluesman Major Burkes, who had a minor hit with “Break These Chains,” and Jean and the Rollettes were also regulars. During this time, the Victory Grill was thriving a block down E. 11th and Charlie’s would compete to bring in name acts like Johnny Taylor, Ike & Tina Turner, Etta James, Albert Collins, Joe Tex, Tyrone Davis and Al “TNT” Braggs.
Clubs had to close at midnight back then, but that’s when the party was really cooking, so Gildon opened his afterhours joint disguised as an all-night chicken restaurant, in 1960. The Playhouse had been experiencing a quite lucrative problem for Gildon when UT fraternities, turned onto the East Side bands by Cactus Pryor’s Saturday TV show Now Dig This on KTCB, flocked to Charlie’s every weekend and took 90% of the chairs and tables. Charlie designated Monday “Soul Night,” but Huston-Tillotson students thought that was a slap in the face and picketed Charlie’s because they were allowed to go only to East Side clubs, while the white kids could go anywhere in town. And they took over the black club, because they spent more money.
But Ernie’s Chicken Shack at 1167 Webberville Road was immune to gentrification. That place, which had gambling around the clock, was a bit too real, though if you wanted to get UT quarterback legend Bobby Layne’s autograph he was usually in the back room throwing dice. Gildon was a hardcore gambler himself. The bands who played Charlie’s that night always moved on over to Ernie’s. It was a set break with a 5-minute drive. Then the bands played ‘til 5 a.m. In the segregated 1960s, East Austin was its own world with its own laws. Probably some grease going around, too, but if it didn’t impact life on the other side of East Avenue (now I-35), it didn’t seem to matter to the cops.
Charlie’s Playhouse, so popular that clubs such as IL Club, Hideaway, Alabama Club, Good Daddy’s and Sam’s Showplace thrived on the overflow, is really where the downtown Austin club scene as we know it was born. East met West at that joint where blacks and whites danced together (though seating was segregated) to that Negro rock n’ roll. Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan came out of Charlie’s Playhouse, mentored by guitarist Bill Campbell, a white man from Smithville, who the black bands accepted as a brother. If you want to learn how to cook Creole cuisine you go to New Orleans. If you wanted to play the blues, you went to the East Side.
Charlie’s closed in 1972 and became a succession of other clubs- Tink’s Playhouse, Jackson 4 Club, etc.- before it was torn down. It’s now just an empty lot, unless a condo came up in the two months since I checked. Ernie’s Chicken Shack closed soon after Gildon was shot to death in his liquor store in 1979.