[First appeared in “Culture Map: Austin,” August 2011 | Revised: October 2016]
The house lights are dim; my mind wanders in a different era— the sounds of B.B. King, T.D. Bell, Ike & Tina Turner, Billie Holiday surround me …
I sit in the Kovac Room, the Victory Grill’s famed Chitlin’ Circuit venue. Unfortunately, it is 2011, not the 1950’s. What it would have been like, I wonder, to see these Blues greats perform in the Kovac Room? My mind wanders to the late Johnny Holmes (July 19, 1917-February 10, 2001), the visionary behind the “Grill,” who some say initiated Austin’s music scene. Later, I visit with Holmes’s daughter, LaFaye Holmes-Wilson. “Faye,” who grew up working the “front” of the Victory Grill shares story after story about her father, family, and the performers. We meet at the same Whataburger where Holmes and his pastor, Rev. N.W. Bacon, Jr. use to meet, along with others—The Grill being open seven days a week from 6:00 am to 3:00 am. It is here and nearby Dan’s where Holmes received spiritual direction while handing over his tithe. When I leave the seeds for a documentary have been planted. Two concurrent, intertwining stories: Johnny Holmes and the Victory Grill, and Johnny Holmes the promoter. Faye tells me, “(The Grill) was his livelihood, but it was also his passion.”
The Victory Grill was Austin’s premier stop along a string of African-American performance venues from the late 1800’s through the 1960’s known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” Beginning with the Royal Theater in Baltimore, or perhaps, New York City’s Apollo and Cotton Club, the “Circuit” made a loop through the South, ending in Chicago at Club DeLisa or the Regal Theater. When we mention the Chitlin’ Circuit we usually think of musicians, but these venues also hosted comedians, burlesque, Vaudeville, even lectures.
August 16, 1945— Japan surrenders; Black soldiers returning to Austin from the war find little opportunity to let off steam; segregation is at its height; there are virtually no Black USO’s; Threadgill’s and Liberty Lunch are “No Colored Admitted” establishments. Enter Johnny Holmes: Convincing his wife, Basyle, to cash out her retirement funds, Holmes, trained as a cook, on this day purchases a tiny ice house on E. 11th St. and opens a two-table burger joint, with the goal of providing a place for Blacks to hang out and socialize. Looking for a name with market appeal to the returning soldiers, Holmes settles on “Victory”—The Victory Café.
At first the café is just that, a café. In 1947 Holmes moved next door (his original purchase included four buildings); what will in time become the “Kovac Room” is nothing more than an field behind the building, with a stage, some tables and chairs, “all painted blue,” Faye recalls. It wasn’t until around 1950 that the space became enclosed. Not until Holmes returned from Alaska in 1965 did it become the “Kovac Room,” named after Ernie Kovacs whom he claimed to have met while working as a cook in Alaska.
“Dad never ‘came by’ an interest in the Blues,” Faye tells me. “I always say that if he had to sing for his supper, he would have never seen the age of twenty-one. Dad’s interest in the Blues—it had nothing to do with his interest, it was the interest of his customers. Everything for the people!” No matter the source of the interest it is not far fetched to say that without Johnny Holmes the Blues scene in Austin, Texas – and even the United States – would not be the same.
Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B King, Gatemouth Brown – all Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees – got their start at the Victory Grill. Some became lifelong friends; Holmes served for years as B. B. King’s Texas road manager. A steady stream of Blues greats, and other well-know entertainers frequented the Kovac Room; legends Ike & Tina Turner, James Brown, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry and even Janice Joplin.
Holmes’s dream was supported by his family: His wife, Basyle, lent her husband the money in exchange for a promise of a big house to live in (finally built 10 years latter). His uncle prepared breakfast in the cafe, and all of Holmes’s kids helped out as they could. Faye reminisces, “I don’t remember the performers … I was seven years old! … I vividly remember creating placards announcing events he promoted. My mom and I hand stamped so many of these placards … Dad would have the picture of the musician printed and we finished each, using mom’s lettering stamp set that she had purchased for her classes at school. I hated coming home to find a big stack of placards on the kitchen table! During college I worked full time in the Grill for thirty dollars a week.” In later years when money was tight, Basyle’s father, the Rev. VanZandt stepped in financially.
The Victory Grill established the E. 11th St. music scene, and other clubs followed: Charlie’s Playhouse for one. It is said that Charlie’s Playhouse stole the thunder from the Victory Grill. Faye claims that all the venues worked together. Old time residents of the neighborhood remember that on weekends you could barely get down 11th St for all the people heading to the venues; the Victory Grill, chief among them.
In 1952, Holmes following the oil boom, leased the Grill, and moved his family to Odessa, introducing West Texas to the Blues. During the “Odessa Period” we hear frequent mention of the “Johnny Holmes Band, which Faye says was a group of musicians that Holmes provided venues in need of one musician or several. But we are getting ahead of ourselves—back to 1945.
It wasn’t long after opening that the Victory Grill became the place for Black soldiers to socialize. They came from as far away as Fort Hood; many who were also budding performers. “If you wanted to test the waters, this was the stepping-off place,” Faye noted. “The first time I put on a guitar and played in public as a professional was right here,” says W.C. Clark, the “Godfather of Austin Blues.” The Harlem Cab Company, located across the street from the Grill, was often called upon for a Fort Hood run, to get the men and women back to the base. Sometimes Holmes, himself, provided the taxi service. Behind the Victory Grill Holmes owned a boarding house were those without accommodations where often put up.
In spite of the fame of the Victory Grill as a performance venue – and this is what we know it for today – the real activity took place in the front café. Performances happened only on the weekends; the socializing took place seven days a week—full breakfasts, lunches, dinners, to late night burgers and fried chicken, along with the Grill’s tongue-burning “Chili Bowl of Red” and enchiladas was the draw. The Grill’s business cards, after ’65, advertised “Spanish & American food.” According to Faye the Victory Grill was able to pay all of its expenses for the week from three days worth of meals. On performance night, Holmes took only 10% of the (back) house, the rest of the ticket income going to the performers.
Over the years, Holmes stayed involved in the management of The Victory Grill until his death, although his involvement varied. From 1945 until 1952 Holmes managed the Grill. From 1952 until 1965, while Holmes was living in Odessa and Alaska, he contracted with others to manage the Grill. Faye recalls that the first person to do so was known to everyone as “Big Mary.”
In 1965, when Holmes returned from Alaska he said that he barely recognized E 11th St., Integration had taken place, many affluent Blacks had moved to the suburbs, leaving the neighborhood in decline. For a while Clifford Antone of Antone’s and Holmes talked about merging, but Holmes nixed the idea for love of the Grill. In the late 70’s the Kovac Room closed, although the café still flourished. On the Juneteenth 1987 weekend the Kovac Room came back to life, Blues once again flowed as former musicians, friends, and fans returned for a reunion. On October 10, 1988 fire engulfed the Grill, causing major damage. Fund raisers were held to help reopen the Grill, most unfortunately raised little. A year later, R.V. Adams a longtime friend of Holmes helped restore the Grill, reopening in 1990, initiating a cultural rebirth of E. 11th St.
Although the café is currently closed Blues can be heard in the Kovac Room on some Monday evenings. The Victory Grill, still owned by the Holmes family, struggles along seeking to revive the Grill’s former grandeur, as well as continue Johnny Holmes’ legacy of helping aspiring musicians.
The Victory Grill is listed in the National Register of Historical Places, recognized by the Texas Historical Commission as holding a significant place in Texas’ role in WWII , and called a “Texas Treasure” by Preservation Texas.