Beginning in 1945, the sounds of big bands, the blues, and rock blended on the dance floor of East Waco’s Walker’s Auditorium.
Continually looking for ways to serve his community, African American entrepreneur Herbert Walker founded the club. Prior to opening the venue, Mr. Walker provided his neighbors with leisure and transportation through his taxi stand and stables. Later he added a BBQ pit and apartment buildings to his business portfolio. As the only establishment of its kind open to blacks, Walker’s Auditorium served as a prominent social spot for Waco’s African American community. Its pea green, maroon, and grey interior was complemented with elegant furnishings, a sizable dance floor, pool tables, and a mirrored bar that offered patrons drinks and entrées like fried chicken. Mr. Walker told a local paper he envisioned the spot as offering “Wacoans a good place to go for amusement.”
Walker’s Auditorium operated as part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a cross-country touring route used by black entertainers prevented by segregation from playing in white-only locations. A network of black-owned and -patronized businesses, the circuit created an opportunity for African American artists to freely express themselves and their experiences. By being a stop on this route, Walker’s Auditorium connected blacks in Central Texas to national trends in African American social and cultural life. It fueled creativity but was a grueling lifestyle. Musical acts such as Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, B.B. King, and Etta James, all of whom would go on to greater success, played Walker’s Auditorium for gigs of a night or two when they traveled through Texas in the 1950s and 60s. They went on to other clubs, but some of the talent drawn to Waco by Walker’s Auditorium decided to stay in the area.
In 1963, Herbert Walker invited Louisiana-born blues musician Classie Ballou to lead his house band. Ballou played music all across the world, but his growing family made Walker’s invitation of localized work appealing. As often as six nights a week, Ballou provided the soundtrack at Walker’s Auditorium. When business diminished for Walker’s Auditorium and the rest of the Chitlin’ Circuit, Ballou chose to remain in Waco playing regular gigs around town.
Outside its primary function as a music venue, Walker’s Auditorium hosted holiday parties, debutant balls, parades, and various celebrations. Fraternities and sororities like Alpha Phi Alpha used the club for dances and gatherings. In 1953, it held a fundraiser for the March of Dimes. Civic clubs and organizations also used the space for business functions and teas. Walker’s Auditorium provided Waco’s African American community with a multipurpose venue suited both for amusement and formal meetings.
The patrons of Walker’s Auditorium, however, were not exclusively African American. White Wacoans, and many Baylor students, also frequented the club. “Mingling” between whites and blacks occurred more frequently by the 1960s, than in previous decades of the club’s operation. This shift resulted in broader acknowledgement of the club by all Waco’s citizens. Community members, like state senator Murray Watson, met with Mr. Walker and held him in high esteem. Additionally, local and student newspapers, whose racialized reporting on Walker’s Auditorium early on tended to revolve around petty crime, now increasingly carried advertisements and other news about the establishment in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is in this era that it became a community institution, expanding Mr. Walker’s vision to its fullest extent.
The advent of the civil rights movement, the closing of James Connally Air Force Base, and competition from other entertainment eventually hurt Walker’s Auditorium. Like many venues on the Chitlin’ Circuit, it fell into disrepair. In 1977, Walker’s Auditorium came under new management, but only a year later it ceased operating. By the 2000s, nothing remained where the legendary venue once stood. Through over three decades of operation, Walker’s Auditorium gave Wacoans, particularly its black citizens, a place to relax and celebrate.