The Ugliest Building in Austin, Texas is the Coolest: The Victory Grill, A Classic Juke Joint

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This is part I of a two-part series exploring one of the ugliest historic gems in Austin, Texas.

“Artists were relegated to the chitlin’ circuit. Working it was a grind. Even its title is depressing, derived from what black people call a hog’s small intestine, the cuisine of relegation. This chitlin’ circuit seemed to be an unpleasant place, located in our nation’s bowels, and better left unexplored.”[1]

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Cover of Lauderbach’s book

So wrote the author Preston Lauterbach in his 2011 exploration of mid-century and contemporary juke joints in the southern United States. These juke joints, the few still left standing today, are often called “nondescript places.”[2] This might aptly describe the Victory Grill. Located at 1104 East 11th Street in Austin, Texas, its physical description is nothing extraordinary. In fact, some might consider the building ugly. But its four walls offer a remarkably rich cultural history. It tells a story of our nation, and at the heart of this story are a people with perseverance, who found within its walls a site of inspiration and cultural resistance.

The phrase “juke joint” is a colloquial term for a ramshackle club where blacks gathered to drink and dance. As former juke joint performer Sax Kari explains, “In the South there was nothing but farming: tobacco fields, rice fields, sugar cane, cotton fields. [Black people] worked all week, and Saturday night was their night to howl, get drunk and fornicate.”[3] In the United States, these places sprang up after the Civil War. They were never intended to be permanent structures, in part because the performances they housed were often spontaneous.

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Early photograph of Victory Grill

Blacks would hear of traveling musicians in their area and casually congregate at shacks or crossroads to listen and dance to music.[4] Gradually these performances grew in popularity and over time juke joints evolved into fixed structures. In an era of legalized segregation, the clubs functioned as both an artistic and leisure space for blacks. And in turn, these venues served as a locus of cultural resistance—a chance for blacks to hang out away from the scrutiny of white America.[5] The “Chitlin’ Circuit” was the nickname which described the route performers took to get from one joint to the next. It was “an informal roadmap,” and one that for many blacks was “the only safe way to travel and play their music.”[6]

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Photograph of club interior, around 1945. The Victory Grill was a popular hangout for returning black vets of WWII.

In Austin, juke joints sprang up on the East Side in what was known as the “Negro District.” This is where the largest concentration of blacks existed. By 1940, approximately 17% of Austin’s population was black, and all the businesses in roughly a 15-block region catered exclusively to a black clientele [7] Johnny Holmes was the original owner of the Victory Grill[RB1] . Initially he was a music promoter for black artists, but by 1945 he decided to try his hand as a club owner. On V-E Day he opened his establishment.

Initially The Victory Grill was located in a small “lean-to” shack on 11th Street, but soon Holmes relocated to a larger space right next door.[8] He shared the building with a local dry cleaner.[9] The club quickly attracted a large number of regulars, most prominently young black soldiers returning from the war, and with their patronage, the club became an instant success. Not only was it typically packed, so was the street outside, filled with blacks enjoying the many businesses that lined the street.[10] In the 1950s the Victory Grill was at its zenith, attracting national acts the likes of Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Billie Holiday, and Chuck Berry, to name but a few.[11] Playing the “Chitlin’ Circuit” these performers left a lasting legacy and are credited with creating the sounds of post war rock and blues music.[12]

 Ugly Cool, Part II:  The Historic Victory Grill Juke Joint In Austin, Texas



[1] Preston Lauterbach, The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock and Roll (London: Norton and Company), 9.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Wikipedia juke joint entry. Retrieved on 21 October 2011 at .” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juke_joint

[5] This assertion comes from my training as an historian. A performative space exclusively for blacks was likely a complex experience—it provided a chance to act out, relax and enjoy leisure time, and behave in a manner not permissible in mainstream white society.

[6] Jonny Meyers, “Juke Joint Blues: Blues Boy Hubbard Remembers Austin’s Chitlin’ Circuit,” Austin Chronicle, 13 July 2007, retrieved on 21 October 2011.

[7] Alan Govenar, Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound, (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008), 489.

[8] Wikipedia Entry on “The Victory Grill.” Retreived on 20 October 2011. Of note, A Sandborn map from 1900 shows only wood frame structures on the block, including two warehouses. See Austin, 1900, Sanborn Map, #18 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victory_Grill.

[9] Christopher Hess, “Perpetuating Preservation: Austin’s Historic Victory Grill,’ Austin Chronicle, 3 January 1997, retrieved on 20 October 2011.

[10] Govenar, 490.

[11] Wikipedia entry on The Victory Grill.

[12] Lauterbach, 267.


 

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Comments

  1. John Falcon says:

    I had the lucky fortune to know Mr. Johnny Holmes growing up … my grandmother owned a grocery store (Guajardo’s Cash Grocery & Market) right around the corner, which supplied Mr. Holmes groceries for the grill. Mr. Holmes knew me from birth and would refer to me as “Little Sonny”, my Dad’s nickname is Sonny. My father is also a culinary celebrity of sorts, being the TRUE originator of the FAJITA, and is known as THE FAJITA KING.

    I owned a Limo company in the late 90′s thru about 2001 or ’02, I had the great fortune of driving B.B. King for a series of days around the time he taped his last appearance on Austin City Limits. Mr. King & I were talking one day while running errands and he began to reflect back on the Chitlin’ Circuit days and proceeded to tell me about Mr. Holmes and the Victory Grill, I could see that he was a little taken aback when I mentioned that I knew Mr. Holmes and that I grew up basically around the corner of the Victory Grill, mind you at the time I was about 35, I’m Hispanic but folks think I have some Italian in me, so I guess in Mr. King’s eyes I might not have been ‘a fit’ for the neighborhood.

    Long story short, on the night of the ACL taping, I was leading Mr. King back upstairs to the dressing room (old ACL Studio on campus), when I led Mr. King into the dressing room Mr. Holmes was sitting in a corner facing the door & he greeted me first with a big, loud “Lil Sonny!” and I went to shake Mr. Holmes hand when the following conversation happened:

    Mr. King says to Mr. Holmes “you really know this guy?”
    Mr. Holmes “since he was in diapers”
    Mr. King “he said he knew you, but I couldn’t figure it out, he’s too young”
    Mr. Holmes “his Daddy supplied the grill with all that food”
    Mr. King “my, my, my (shaking his head & smiling at me) you never know, you never know”

    … it seemed from that moment on Mr. King & I really clicked and I had the great thrill to drive him for another day and a half, culminating with him tipping me extremely well and giving me great seats and backstage passes when he played the Erwin Ctr. a couple of days later.

    Damn I love the blues, and this has always been one of my life’s highlights. Mr. Holmes was a neat gentleman who unfortunately passed a few years after that. LONG LIVE THE VICTORY GRILL!