Houston 101: Magnolia Gardens -- Houston's Rockin' Little Riverside Beach
It may not look like much today, but back in the '50s and '60s, Magnolia Gardens was the place to be if you liked country music and rockabilly. The open-air dance hall/bandstand on the banks of the San Jacinto River was in a resort-like setting, with a restaurant or two and a few boat ramps scattered about the grounds.
But the place is best remembered for the music. In his autobiography Whiskey River (Take My Mind), Texas honky-tonker legend Johnny Bush remembered as the place to go on a Sunday afternoon, where people would sit around in their bathing suits on a sandy beach at the riverside and take in shows by all the biggest country and early rock and roll stars.
Late local country music Hall of Famer Floyd Tillman wrote a song called "Magnolia Gardens Waltz," and Elvis played there several times before his stardom reached critical mass. There's even some rare color home movie footage -- shot when KNUZ had just broken "That's Alright Mama" locally -- to prove it:
The entire Sun Records pantheon would appear there, apparently on the same bills. In "Telephone Road," the centerpiece of the memoir-ish 2000 album The Houston Kid, Rodney Crowell sang of being galvanized by these Memphis invasions:
Magnolia Garden [sic] bandstand on the very front row
Johnny Cash Carl Perkins and The Killer putting on a show
6 years old and just barely off my daddy's knee
When those rockabilly rebels
Sent the Devil running right through me
At some point in the last few decades, the devil went right through Magnolia Gardens too. Now it's hard to tell that this was ever the site of musical glory. All along the heavily wooded roads leading up to the gates, there are scattered houses that are positively back-of-beyond Appalachian in their squalor. Not to mention illegal dumping sites, some vastly more illegal than others: Last year, the body of a 55-year-old woman was found stuffed in a suitcase on the Magnolia Gardens grounds -- she was alleged to have been discarded there by her 17-year-old daughter with the aid of her 19-year-old boyfriend.
Apparently the area is still run as a resort (though today, like so much of what used to be white working-class Houston, it caters to Hispanics) and is open at really odd times.