City Auditorium - Houston, TX

The Winnie Davis Auditorium in Houston had been opened in 1895. The hall, located at the corner of Main and McGowen and named after the daughter of the former Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, sported electrical connections, but the plumbing was primitive at best. It served its function for the next fifteen years. In 1910, the new City Auditorium at Texas Avenue and Louisiana Street replaced the Winnie Davis.1  With a seating capacity of 7,000 it was touted as the "most modern auditorium in the State."

Houston City Auditorium - c.1910

An April 24, 1910, Houston Chronicle article reported that crews were working day and night to complete work on the city's new auditorium by November 1. "When completed, this will be the largest fireproof auditorium in the South and it will represent an expenditure of $250,000. This auditorium, coupled with the million-dollar hotel to be erected, will render Houston the leading convention city of the Southwest. The promoters of the auditorium regard it as the greatest advertising feature which the city could possess," the Chronicle wrote.2

Interior of the 1910 City Auditorium
postcard courtesy Cinema Houston by David Welling, Jack Valenti

A well-proportioned hall that featured a grand proscenium arch, the City Auditorium was used for conventions, society balls, and occasional performances by theatrical stock companies. It was also headquarters for the annual No-Tsu-Oh festivities. No-Tsu-Oh ("Houston" spelled backwards), also known as the Houston Carnival, was the big social event of the year and included horse and auto races, poultry and pet stock shows, rodeo events, and daily band concerts, all leading up to a spectacular parade and ball.1

Houston was the first city in Texas to have a municipal band. The group, under the baton of conductor Charles Lewis, gave its first concert on May 5, 1912, in City Auditorium. Not only did the Municipal Band continue to give free Sunday afternoon concerts at City Auditorium, The Woman’s Choral Club, a group of 50 vocalists, performed initially for small informal gatherings. By 1912 it was appearing at the Sunday afternoon concerts at City Auditorium. Like its counterparts, the Woman’s Choral Club also sponsored performances by nationally known musicians.  In fact, it was through the efforts of the Woman’s Choral Club and the Girls’ Musical Club (which continues today as the Tuesday Musical Club) that the Houston Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1913.3

Enrico Caruso
Photo courtesy Cornelius van Beek collection

A highlight of the City auditorium's history was the 1920 appearance of Enrico Caruso. Caruso disliked performing live, and therefore asked for exorbitant fees for his solo appearances. He demanded, and received, $12,000, which was placed in a bank thirty days before his appearance. The ticket office was swamped by hundreds of people for the sold-out show. Unwilling to turn them away, concert organizer Edna W. Saunders asked the ushers to open all the doors and windows of the hall. The evening air was filled with the voice of the most revered tenor of the day, heard by hundreds of people on the sidewalks outside the auditorium.1

The City Auditorium, and the Public Library, were also the first home(s) of Houston's Museum of Natural Science's holdings.  On display were its collection which included minerals, shells, insects, butterflies, birds, and other animals in addition to important ethnographic and archaeological materials.  In 1929 the collection came to rest in the Houston Zoo.4

Babe Ruth and the NY Yankees at City Auditorium - Mar 29, 1930

Photo courtesy Sloan Gallery

Babe Ruth and the NY Yankees at City Auditorium - Mar 29, 1930

Photo courtesy Sloan Gallery

On March 29th and 30th of 1930 the New York Yankees were in Houston to play two preseason games against the Houston Buffalos. The Yankees won the first on the 29th, 17-2, and the second on the 30th, 6-5.  While in town, Babe Ruth give a talk at the City Auditorium to the Kiwanis Club “Knot Hole Gang” boys group, a group made up of boys who could not afford to go to the baseball games.5  "Knot Hole" is a reference to the holes in fences at ballparks that people without tickets would at times peer through to watch a game.

Texas Ave. looking west towards Louisiana St., City Auditorium on left - Dec. 1935
Photo courtesy J. R. Gonzales

Harris County suffered through 16 major floods from 1836 to 1936, some of which crested at more than 40 feet, turning downtown Houston streets into raging rivers. Estimated property damage in 1929 was $1.4 million, a staggering sum at the time. Losses more than doubled in 1935, when seven people were killed and the Port of Houston was crippled for months - its docks submerged, its channel clogged with tons of mud and wreckage, its railroad tracks uprooted. Twenty-five blocks of the downtown business district were inundated, as well as 100 residential blocks.6

Louisiana St. looking north toward Texas Ave., City Auditorium on right - Dec. 1935
Photo courtesy J. R. Gonzales

Though wrestling in Houston was held at the Auditorium almost since the beginning, top wrestlers were coming to Houston on a steady basis by the mid mid-1920s when Julius Sigel and then later his brother Morris started promoting the Friday night shows.  It became one of the most popular spectator sports in Houston during the 1940s and 50s. One evening during a War Bond Fundraising Event, the Houston Symphony played the background music for the wrestling matches.7

Of all the States (mostly Southern) that Elvis, Scotty and Bill toured in the '50s, they played the most dates in Texas, with appearances at different venues in Houston taking the lead. They were likely first heard in Houston, for the most part, when 28 year old Radio KNUZ deejay Biff Collie started playing their records. Collie also promoted and booked shows and was one of the first to book Hank Williams, Sr. According to Peter Guralnick, Collie had first heard of Elvis though Tillman Franks and T. Tommy Cutrer of Shreveport.  Collie had gone to see and hear Elvis with Tillman at the Eagle's Nest in Memphis when he shared the bill with one of Tillman's acts, Jimmy and Johnny. Collie had Elvis booked for several dates in Houston at the Paladium in November of 1954 for $150.8  On December 28th they were booked to appear there again topping a bill for a "Yule Tide Jamboree" at Cook's Hoedown Club of which Collie was a part owner, and Scotty remembers them leaving for Houston a day early because Elvis wanted to see Johnny Ace perform in town.

B.B King at Houston City Auditorium
Photo by Benny Joseph courtesy of Rice University Press and James M. Salem

Johnny Ace, born John Alexander Jr. was from Memphis and got his start playing piano in the "Beale Streeters," sidemen put together by B. B. King for his own spot on WDIA Radio in 1949.  The Beale Streeters at times would include King, Alexander, drummer Earl Forest, sax player Adolph “Billy" Duncan, Robert Calvin Bland ("Bobby 'Blue' Bland") on vocals and Roscoe Gordon.  King would later sign with the Bihari Brothers' label, Bland would go with Joe Turner and Alexander would inherit the Beale Streeters and sign with a new label in Memphis, Duke Records, founded by WDIA program director and deejay David J. Mattis in 1952.  Mattis would have him change his name to Johnny Ace ("Johnny" for Johnny Ray and "Ace" for the Four Aces).  Financially strapped Duke would be acquired months later by Don Robey and Peacock Records in Houston.9

Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton
Photo courtesy Galen Gart, Big Nickel Productions and James M. Salem

Peacock Records was a black label started in Houston in 1949 by Don Robey and Evelyn Johnson, initially, to record and promote their first artist, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.  No national or regional agencies were interested in booking Brown's personal appearances so Johnson started the Buffalo Booking Agency to "act as agent, manager, or representative for members of the association". In time the agency would also add Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Johnny Otis, Bobby Bland, Ike and Tina Turner and Little Richard among others to their roster.  In 1952, Robey recorded Thornton's "Hound Dog" (produced by Johnny Otis and recorded at Radio Recorders August 13, 1952) and also acquired the Duke label, Johnny Ace and his recording of "My Song" with the Beale Streeters.9

Johnny Ace
Photo © Ernest C. Withers

Robey put Thornton and Ace together on the road and promoted them as a package, which was especially good for Thornton, who was not a headliner. Robey was able to exploit the popularity of Ace by linking him with other acts represented by the Buffalo Booking Agency as well.  Ace became so big that you had to buy B. B. King and Bobby Blue Bland if you wanted Johnny Ace.  On Christmas day, December 25, 1954, Ace and Thornton were booked for a “Negro Christmas dance" at the City Auditorium in Houston.  The show was not a sell out but drew a respectable crowd of 3500.9

Thornton opened the show and then Ace and Thornton finished the first set, as they always did, with a duet of the Ace's recent hit, “Yes, Baby," that had Thornton as an unnamed singer on the recording.  During intermission, between 11:00 and 11:15 PM., Ace was backstage in the North side dressing room, playing with his hand gun, as he'd been known to do, and drinking vodka, when he accidentally shot himself in the head.9

Depositions given by three witnesses indicate at least five people were in the dressing room, including Olivia Gibbs and her friend Mary Carter, who had a pint of vodka she was sharing with people as they came into the room. The most complete account of what followed is the deposition, presented here in its exact words, given to authorities by Willie Mae Thornton at 12:40 A.M. on December 26, 1954:
We arrived at the City Auditorium at around 7:20 p.m. and the dance started about eight o’clock. I did not sing until about nine o’clock when I sing five numbers. The band played several numbers before Johnny Ace came on to sing. He sing several numbers and he and I sing the duet "Yes Baby." The band played two more numbers. I then went to the dressing room to change clothes, but I got busy signing autographs and I did not get to change clothes. Johnny Ace came to the dressing room and he signed some autographs. He started to leave out the door when some people stopped to talk to him. About that time, Olivia, Johnny Ace's girl friend walked up and Johnny and Olivia came into the dressing room. Johnny sit on a dresser in the dressing room and Olivia sit on his lap. Shortly after he sit down, two more people who were in the dressing room, Mary Carter and Joe Hamilton, began running around. I looked over at Johnny and noticed he had a pistol in his hand. It was a pistol that he bought somewhere in Florida. It was a .22 cal. revolver. Johnny was pointing this pistol at Mary Carter and Joe Hamilton. He was kind of waving it around. I asked Johnny to let me see the gun. He gave it to me and when I turned the chamber a .22 cal. bullet fell out in my hand. Johnny told me to put it back in w[h]ere it wouldn’t fall out. I put it back and gave it to him. I told him not to snap it at nobody. After he got the pistol back, Johnny pointed the pistol at Mary Carter and pulled the trigger. It snapped. Olivia was still sitting on his lap. I told Johnny again not to snap the pistol at anybody. Johnny then put the pistol to Olivia’s head and pulled the trigger. It snapped. Johnny said "I’ll show you that it won't shoot." He held the pistol up and looked at it first and then put it to his head. I started toward the door and I heard the pistol go off. I turned around and saw Johnny falling to the floor. I saw that he was shot and I run on stage and told the people in the band about it. I stayed there until the officers arrived."9

Olivia Gibbs told police she didn’t think the gun was loaded when “johnny started fooling with this little pistol again" because when Ace was playing with it that afternoon at her apartment it was not loaded. As she described the scene, "Johnny was sitting on the [dressing room] table and I was by him and he had his arm around me":
I saw Johnny look at the gun and then he put it up to my head and pulled the trigger and it snapped. I saw him look at the gun again and then he put it up to his head and pulled the trigger and the gun fired. He then fell off of the table and on to the floor. Everybody ran out of the room except Mary Carter, Willie Mae Thornton and me. I thought he was just playing and I picked up his head and then I saw the blood. I then ran to the box office and told Evelyn Johnson that Johnny had shot himself."9

Mary Carter’s deposition also corroborated Thornton’s account of the shooting:
After I had been in the dressing room a few minutes Johnny had a small pistol and he was pointing it at some of the people and he would pull the trigger and we could hear it “click,” after awhile he put the gun to Olivia's ear and pulled the trigger and I could hear it “click.” Johnny then reared back in his chair and told us he “was going to show us how it worked," he then put the gun to his right ear and pulled the trigger. I then heard a “pop" and Johnny fell over in the floor and I saw blood start to running out of his head on the left side.

Though black Radio in Memphis heard of the tragedy quickly, the boys hadn't.  Elvis, Scotty and Bill didn't get to Houston in time to see Johnny perform.  Scotty remembers though that all they got to see was the dressing room where Johnny shot himself. 

Hank Williams and Biff Collie at Daily's record store Houston - c.1948
Picture © Donald M. Daily

On April 2, 1955, they performed at the Auditorium themselves for the first time when the Louisiana Hayride did a remote broadcast from there.  Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen wrote in Elvis Day by Day that they appeared with Slim Whitman, Hoot and Curley, Johnny Horton, Tibby Edwards, Floyd Cramer, and others. Elvis performs "Little Mama," "That's All Right," "You're a Heartbreaker," and "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Billboard reports on June 4 that 2,000 people were turned away from this performance and that Elvis and Slim Whitman both tore the house down.

Now headliners themselves, on April 21, 1956 they appeared at the Auditorium for the last time. Ads for the shows ran in both the Houston Post and the Chronicle. On Thursday, the 19th the Chronicle ran the following story:

Teen-Age Rage Elvis Presley Here Saturday
Elvis Presley, the idol of the teenagers, will headline his own show at the City Auditorium Saturday at 7;30 and at 9:30 pm.
Just 21, Elvis is called the greatest new personality of recorded music to be discovered in the past 10 yeans. His combination of talent, good looks and great showmanship has young Miss America in a dither that surpasses even that stirred up by Frank Sinatra some years ago.
He is one of the few entertainers to have his records played country, pop and blues disk jockeys.
It all started two years ago when Elvis stopped in a recording studio in his home town of Memphis, Tenn. to make a demonstration record of his voice, to play for his friends. Six months later, the recording manager called to ask if he wanted to make some records for sale to the public.
From his first release, it was apparent he had what record buyers wanted. Each successive record has outsold the previous one. R C A.-Victor Records. when advised of the excitement he was causing among the teenagers, paid $40,000 for his recording contract.
Tickets for his two shows are on sale at Joske's record department.

Elvis backstage in Houston - April 21, 1956
Photo by John D. Greensmith courtesy Ger Rijff's "Fire in the Sun"

Elvis backstage in Houston - April 21, 1956
Photo by John D. Greensmith courtesy Ger Rijff's "Fire in the Sun"

Scotty said that during this show there was a guitar magazine that was interested in doing a story on him, as a guitarist. A picture was taken for it that for this one time in particular showed him out in front of Elvis with the focus being on him.

Scotty, Elvis, Bill and DJ at City Auditorium - April 21, 1956
Photo courtesy Joey Kent's "The Louisiana Hayride Years 1954- 1956"

Scotty, Elvis and DJ at City Auditorium - April 21, 1956
Photo courtesy Joey Kent's "The Louisiana Hayride Years 1954- 1956"

DJ, Elvis and Bill at City Auditorium - April 21, 1956
Photo courtesy Joey Kent's "The Louisiana Hayride Years 1954- 1956"

Elvis signing autographs in Houston - April 21, 1956
Photo by John D. Greensmith courtesy Ger Rijff's "Fire in the Sun" and Corbis images

Bill Porterfield, staff writer for the Chronicle, reviewed the show the following day:

Elvis Presley and His Guitar
He Has a Style All His Own
Chronicle Photo courtesy Gail Reaben


Elvis Presley Rocks Auditorium Crowd

By Bill Porterfield

A tall young giant from Tennessee strode out on the stage of Municipal Auditorium Saturday night--and pandemonium reigned.
Four thousand teen-agers, filling every seat in the vast hall and overflowing into the aisles, squealed, moaned and screamed in ecstasy.


Snap Pictures

A squad of police officers pushed back hordes of eager young photographers, mostly girls, who clamored on stage to snap pictures of their idol.
And what sort of phenomenon is this? Elvis Presley, a 21-year-old with a guitar in a year has numbed the teenage heart across the nation with his belting rock-n-roll song delivery.
Auditorium officials said a total of 8000 customers paid to see Presley and his combo. It was one of the largest crowds to hit the auditorium in a long time.
Presley, say the experts has done for the female heart in the '50s what Sinatra did in the 1940s.

Scotty and Elvis onstage at City Auditorium (2nd show) - April 21, 1956
Photo by John D. Greensmith courtesy Ger Rijff's "Fire in the Sun"

D.J., Bill, Elvis and Scotty at City Auditorium (2nd show) - Apr 21, 1956
Photo courtesy Ger Rijff's "Fire in the Sun"

Clad in a generously padded purple sport coat and black pants, Presley and his band knocked the roof off the hall with low down rock-n-roll blues and primitive rhythms.

Scotty, Elvis and Bill onstage at City Auditorium (2nd show) - April 21, 1956
Photo courtesy eBay

Scotty and Elvis onstage at City Auditorium (2nd show) - April 21, 1956
Photo courtesy eBay

Scotty, Elvis and Bill onstage at City Auditorium (2nd show) - April 21, 1956
Photo courtesy eBay

Audience Lingers

The first show audience lingered until officials pleaded for them to clear the seats for the second concert.
And what did Presley have to say about this? "It's been a wonderful show folks," he yelled in parting. "Just remember this. Don't go milkin' the cow on a rainy day. If there's lightning, you may be left holding the bag."

Elvis at City Auditorium (2nd show) - Apr 21, 1956
Photo courtesy Ger Rijff's "Fire in the Sun"

Four thousand females just died. . . .

by Bill Porterfield, Houston Chronicle - April 22, 1956

Tony Bennett advertised at City Auditorium before it was torn down - June 1963
Houston Chronicle Photo by Richard Pipes courtesy J. R. Gonzales

The City Auditorium in 1963, prior to demolition
Houston Post Photo by Owen Johnson courtesy J. R. Gonzales

1956 was also the year that Jesse Holman Jones, owner of the Houston Chronicle died.  It was Jones' expressed wish to see that Houston had a new opera house. Jones Hall would become his lasting gift to the City.11

The City Auditorium's proscenium stands amid debris as demolition continues
Houston Chronicle Photo by Tom Colburn courtesy J. R. Gonzales

The facility had deteriorated by 1962, and the Houston Endowment, a charitable foundation established by Jesse Jones, committed to building a new hall for the city.11  In 1963 after 53 years, the City Auditorium closed and was demolished to make way for Jones Hall.  Demolition was slow, the paper reported on July 9, 1963, because the building had been so well constructed.2

removal of the old cornerstone - June 20, 1963
Houston Chronicle Photo courtesy J. R. Gonzales

Construction of the new facility began in January 1964. The entire $7.4 million construction tab was paid for by Houston Endowment Inc., a foundation established by the building's namesake. Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts at 615 Louisiana Street was accepted as a gift to the City in civic ceremonies on October 2, 1966.11 Architects for Jones Hall said they wanted to incorporate the old building's cornerstone into the design of the new facility. They laid the original cornerstone outside Jones Hall.2

The cornerstone located outside Jones Hall - July 2007
Photo courtesy J. R. Gonzales

Eventually, three of the original Beale Streeters, Ace, King and Bland, would register Top 20 pop hits. Bland began to penetrate the pop charts in the early 1960s, when soul music turned mainstream. His biggest hit, "Ain`t Nothing You Can Do," was released during the frenzy of the British invasion in early 1964. Kings success came later, after the blues revival of the late 1960s created room for black urban bluesmen. "The Thrill Is Gone" (1970) represents his greatest pop achievement. John Alexander (Johnny Ace) paved the way for both.  His "Pledging My Love", recorded at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, produced by Johnny Otis and released three days before he died would cross over to pop in early 1955.9

Coincidentally, Elvis' cover of "Pledging My Love" would be the B side of the last single ("Way Down") released before his death in 1977.

page added November 5, 2008

Louisiana Hayride at City Auditorium ad courtesy Joey Kent's "The Louisiana Hayride Years 1954- 1956", all other ads and articles courtesy Houston Public Library.

1 excerpt from "Cinema Houston" by David Welling, Jack Valenti
2 excerpt from "Bayou City History" a blog about Houston's past with J.R. Gonzales
3 excerpt from Public bands have played on for a hot century in Houston - by Betty T. Chapman, August 22, 2008
4 according to The History of the Houston Museum of Natural Science
5 according to Sloane Gallery
6 according to Harris County's Flooding History - Harris County Flood Control District
7 according to "Houston Remember When", HoustonPBS Productions
8 according to"Last Train to Memphis" by Peter Guralnick
9 excerpt from "The Late Great Johnny Ace" by James M. Salem
10 courtesy Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts

Scotty, Elvis and DJ onstage at the Houston City Auditorium - April 21, 1956
Photo by and courtesy Gail Reaben

Gail Reaben of Houston remembers seeing Elvis and the boys three times in 1956: first in April here at the Auditorium, then August in Orlando, and finally October again in Houston at the Coliseum.  Each time she sat in the front row.  She was kind enough to share this picture with us that she took at the April show.  Thanks Gail!

Gail Reaben with (who she believed to be) Red West - April 22, 1956

This was taken outside of KNUZ radio station the morning after the April show, 1956.   Red was there being interviewed I think, and I was there too.  I'm the one of the far left in the cowboy hat. BTW, Red West asked me on a date. I was 14 and THANK GOD my mother didn't let me go!

Photo courtesy Gail Reaben added August 6, 2012

appended July 26, 2012

All photos on this site (that we didn't borrow) unless otherwise indicated are the property of either Scotty Moore or James V. Roy and unauthorized use or reproduction is prohibited.

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