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Entertainment, arts returning to former ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ hot spot in East Austin

Tuesday, May 16, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

An East Austin recreation center that was once a hot spot on the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” for African-American entertainers is expected to return to its roots as a hub of live entertainment and creative arts.

Last month Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department began a partnership that offers music, production and live show engineering opportunities to area students at the Doris Miller Auditorium, the Rosewood Avenue facility that has served mostly as a gymnasium since the 1980s. It’s the first step in a move to bring national touring acts and local urban musicians in front of East Austin audiences that parks and community officials say are underserved by most of the city’s cultural offerings.

The April soft launch comes ahead of a planned early June unveiling that will showcase what’s in store for the 1940s-era center that was named in honor of Navy serviceman Doris Miller of Waco, who was awarded the Navy Cross for acts of bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“It’s a building with a very storied history because in the 40s and 50s it was one of the places on the Chitlin’ Circuit,” said Victor Davis of the parks department. “There are elders in the community who went there to see Ella Fitzgerald, Ike and Tina Turner or just peeked in a window to get a glimpse of who was performing there. They’re all really happy to see something like that coming back to the neighborhood.”

Davis said he began working on the new programming for the facility in 2013 because there are five public activity centers in the area and all of them were focused on athletics.

The music instruction program is being spearheaded by Notes for Notes, a Nashville-based nonprofit that provides music exposure and training to students who otherwise lack access to music education. Through contributions from Casio, Gibson Brands Inc., the Country Music Association and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, among others, the center was outfitted with a complete recording studio and “jam room” where students can learn how to play instruments, DJ, record and produce music, and broadcast content.

Davis said the Notes for Notes partnership came about because the organization was looking to establish a site in Texas to add to its 15 others across the country. Moving historic artifacts stored on the site to the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center made room for the music space that was built out by parks staff.

Davis said the facility’s future as a venue for live entertainment will take some time to take shape, but a low-profile visit last year from country star Kacey Musgraves earned it praise.

There are no agreements in place for booking the facility for touring shows, but Davis said creating opportunities for local students will be a priority, along with securing a national historic marker for the complex that also includes Rosewood Neighborhood Park and Delores Duffie Recreation Center.

Ray Price, the site program director for Notes for Notes, said the early response from area students has confirmed the pent-up desire to have music education readily available.

“This community has lots of youth who are at risk and even though there was a demand for these kind of resources there hasn’t been an opportunity to offer high-end gear like what you see that’s new in a music store,” Price said. “The students treat this stuff accordingly. Last weekend we had kids come in who didn’t know what we had here now, and we’re able to give them some good, basic education in the entertainment business.”

Price echoed Davis in stressing the need for an East Austin entertainment venue that can showcase national acts on top of offering a stage and opportunities for young artists.

“The space is phenomenal and with a capacity that makes it one of the only places of its size in East Austin,” he said. “It used to be a pillar kind of venue and there’s so much history on its stage. We’re trying to bring that back out.”

Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0.

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