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Interview with: Ed Coats
Interviewed by: David Courtwright
Date: August 22, 1975
LM: 00:05 Mr. Coats, how long have you lived in Houston?
EC: In 1912.
LM: And were you a native Houstonian?
EC: Oh, no [chuckles]. No.
LM: Where did you come from originally?
EC: I came from Fort Worth—here. My people came to—lived in Fort Worth—and after moving around a couple— I first went to Oklahoma City and then back to Waco and then to Houston.
LM: So what brought you to Houston in 1912?
EC: I came to Houston in 1908 selling Calumet Baking Powder, and I looked, and I liked the town, and I said, “Here’s where I’m going to live.” So in 1912, I made it back here. And I saw them excavating for the Rice Hotel. I saw them hauling the dirt out of there with mules.
LM: What did the town look like in 1912?
EC: Well, it just—it was just a— Well, it’s 75,000 people here. That was the population at that time, I believe. And it was just a country town.
LM: And then you soon became involved in a dyeing—
EC: Well, I went in the dyeing business—I was in the cleaning business, and—when I came here. That is, I had been—I had spent some time at it, pressing in different press shops for somebody else. And I have worked for somebody— I worked for the old Planetorium ??, Planetarium ??, which was one of the first cleaning plants of Houston. As I say, the Fisher Dye Works that I later bought out was organized by old man Fisher in 1901. And I guess the Planetorium ?? was about that old too—the cleaning plant. It was not a dye house where we did our own dyes—at the Planetorium ?? And I started in there 02:09 pressing— Well, no, I started doing that checking—marking in clothes—and I was later made manager of it. Of course, it was a smaller plant. But anyway, I got a whole lot of good experience out in—
LM: And you were able to save your money and eventually buy it out.
EC: Yeah. Yes, I bought it out [chuckles]. I bought it out, and then I re-sold it. And then later on, I bought the Fisher Dye Work.
LM: I imagine Houston was a pretty good place to have a business like that, given the climate. People constantly needed services like that.
EC: My principal work—the _____ ??, I mean, in my heyday was doing Army work. After the First World War, they had all those uniforms and blankets and what-have-you dyed up. I had car loads of them.
LM: Which reminds me, you would have been around in the year they had the race riot with the black soldiers. You would have been in Houston at that time.
EC: Yeah, yeah.
LM: Do you recall that incident?
LM: Well, would you care to give us an account from your point of view?
EC: Well, I didn’t know a whole lot about it, but I very well remember that those colored folks were— I don’t know whether you—whether they called—rebelled or what-have-them—but anyway, they were marching in on Houston and coming in right down near on Washington Avenue and starting into town. But how they stopped them, I don’t know. I guess the police—got enough policemen there to stop them.
LM: Folks were—
EC: But they stopped them before they got into town.
LM: Folks were pretty upset and scared about that.
EC: Oh, yeah. Oh yeah, it created quite some attractment [sic]. Yeah.
LM: 4:03 Well, I guess—to the point of the interview—that was all very interesting—but I also understand that you were involved in a singing group—a kind of Barbershop Quartet.
EC: Yeah. I joined the Barber Shop— Well, I joined the Barber Shop Quartet when it first started here.
LM: And what is that?
EC: Well, I just noticed this date on this search here was ’48, but I believe it started a year or two before that. Old Walter Jenkins, a well-known musical director here in Houston—
who’s still living—he was the head of it at that time or one of the leaders in it.
LM: I imagine that you were involved in other cultural and entertainment activities even before 1948 here in Houston, and you have a fine old big piano over there.
EC: Yeah. Yeah, I was active in— Well, I’ve always sang in church choirs, even long before I ever come to Houston. And so I joined the church and a choir here and later became choir director of that choir [chuckles].
LM: Let me ask you this. Let’s say it’s 1920 again, and I want to go out for a night on the town in Houston. What kind of entertainment would I be likely to find? Where would I go? What were the high spots that I would hit back then?
EC: Oh, you mean back in those days?
EC: Well, we had a few theaters—Majestic Theater, of course was—but if you called going out on the town as they interpret it today, they didn’t have very many of those beer joints 6:06 like they got now—with dance halls and stuff—not very many of them. But more of the entertainment then was more culture than today, as you probably know.
LM: [laughs]. Well, I could have guessed as much.
LM: Did many entertainers of national reputation come through Houston in those days?
EC: Oh, yes. We had— Of course, that part of the—of life I never did take much— I used to go to the Majestic occasionally, and we had some operas come here once in a while, and I went to a couple of them. But I’ve forgotten what they were, because theater entertaining never did interest me a whole lot. I always found something else to do.
LM: Were these operas and theater performances well-attended?
EC: Were they? Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
LM: Do you recall, offhand, how many theaters Houston had at the time, let’s say, 1912?
EC: No, I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know. We— Not very many, though. Not like it is today, but then the Majestic was the leading— I guess they’ve got more attendance than any other theater. And our noted lady, who just died last week—
LM: Miss. Ima.
EC: Miss Ima Hogg, she organized the Houston Symphony—
LM: Uh-Hunh (Affirmative).
EC: —back in those days, and was active in it until her death, I guess. She was president of it 08:00 for—president of the board of it for years.
LM: Did you attend many of those performances?
EC: Oh, yes. I used to go once in a while to them.
LM: How was it? Pretty good?
EC: Oh, yeah. They were nationally known. She couldn’t find the kind of director—she went to Italy and got her—the first outstanding director that— She went over there personally herself and got him.
LM: Who was that?
EC: I forgot. I was trying—talking to somebody the other day, and I tried to remember that man’s name, and I can’t remember it. I can’t bring it to mind. That would be easy to find, though. You could—
LM: Yeah, that’s true. Well, let’s talk a little bit more about the Barber Shop Quartet. Where did you perform?
EC: Well, the first— We performed at different places, but the first real show that we gave was in the music hall, and people come— We were putting it on for one night, and more people were outside that couldn’t get in, so we had to put it on the second night.
LM: So that kind of music was really popular.
EC: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. There it is right there. That’s one of the programs.
LM: Was there more than one group? Have to ask if you faced any competition.
EC: Well—Barber Shop?
LM: Right—of that kind of singing.
EC: Well, there— Not for the first few years, but later we had another fellow that objected to the management, and he organized another group, and there was two Barber Shop Minstral groups in Houston. May still be. I don’t know.
EC: I dropped out of them. Now, this fellow that organized the other one, his name was Hall. I’ve forgotten his first name now. But anyway, I saw him not too long ago. They’re still having their meetings out, I believe, out at the Shamrock.
LM: 10:15 What part did you sing?
LM: Do you think people have as much appreciation for harmonic music today?
EC: I wonder. When I listen to some of this stuff that they put on— We have an organist down at our church, and she plays some of this—some of our sacred music on this off-key business like some of the hippies do, and I’ve been intending to talk with her about it. But then, I haven’t.
LM: Does she do it deliberately or—?
EC: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
LM: She just can’t play the organ.
EC: I think she has music that’s written. I don’t know whether you know what I’m talking about.
LM: Yeah. It’s called atonal music, I think.
EC: Yeah. You know I was sitting up at the Rotary Club in the Rice Hotel, and there was a man sit [sic] at the table with me, and—those tables at the Rotary—held six people—and we had an orchestra come there one day to play. He says, “I would like to see that piece of music that they’re playing written.” Says, “I don’t believe there’s enough lines and spaces to put all that notes [sic] on them that they’re using.” And it was off—what I call off-key music. No harmony to it.
LM: Do you continue to be active in church singing?
EC: Oh, yeah. I don’t have much to do with their singing anymore. I’ve kind of retired. But I’ll tell you a little story about— We had a meeting down at our church a couple of years ago—now it was—and each church in the East District—that’s the churches—Methodist churches divided in districts—and we belonged to the East District. And each church in 12:33 the East District was represented at that meeting that night, and it was the time that I had kind of retired. I was getting too old to be too active in church work. I had kind of retired from everything and wasn’t doing very much. And each member got up and introduced themselves and told—office that they held in the church that they represented—and it come around to my time to stand up to be—to introduce myself—and I says, “Yes, coach—St. John’s church—just a member of the common herd.”
EC: And my pastor says, “Yeah. Held every office in the church except the president of the Women’s Society.”
LM: [laughs] Well, let’s turn to the Houston Youth Symphony now. This is about the same time, I guess, as the Barber Shop Quartet—’47—’48. Would you describe for us your role in the early days of the Youth Symphony?
EC: Well, the only thing that I did in the Youth Symphony—I was— I got interested in that by being the chairman of the Youth Department of the Rotary Club.
LM: Uh-Hunh (Affirmative).
EC: And the most active thing in Youth at that time was the Youth Symphony. So I was—I visited a few times and was made a chair—made member of the board. I started to say chairman of the board. I was not chairman of the board of Youth Symphony, but I was on 14:21 the board of directors.
LM: Now, what year was this?
EC: That I can’t remember, but that was long about this same time.
LM: Uh-Hunh (Affirmative). So the Youth Symphony wasn’t very old when you got involved.
EC: Well, as my understanding was, old Webb had been working with it for a good while, and I don’t know when he started, but he had a pretty good organization. He had an organization enough that I— As I say, I was chairman of the Youth Department of the Rotary Club, and I put on a program at the Rotary Club with the Youth Symphony. The Youth Symphony put the— You know, what the Rotary Club—
EC: —programs are. And this is the biggest program—biggest Rotary Club in the world too.
LM: I’ve heard that before.
EC: Hunh? Yeah. And so I put on the—Webb and I together—and Mrs. Hill—I don’t know whether you ever heard of her or not, but she—
EC: —she was very active in the Youth Symphony.
LM: Was there any other organization at the time similar to the Youth Symphony? Was the—something called the All City Orchestra then in existence?
EC: Well, there was an orchestra of some description. Back in those years we had a— I don’t know whether it was a private band or private orchestra, but we had a man—and I’ve 16:02 forgotten that fellow’s name. He used to play around out at the Hermann Park—at the Miller—and he used to play on the streets and everywhere—just free. I think he probably took up a donation—something—but then that organization I don’t think was a— What is the word I’m trying to say? Financed or—
LM: By the school district.
EC: I think it’s just private donations and stuff. But he had a pretty good orchestra. Yeah, he had an orchestra that got a little recognition out of town and around.
LM: But that sort of disappeared.
LM: That disappeared eventually.
LM: Well, then, I would assume that it was not the All City Orchestra, which is sponsored by the school district.
EC: No, no. No, it wasn’t. Uh-Hunh (Negative).
LM: Because that’s still around.
LM: What were the goals of the Houston Youth Symphony as you understood them?
EC: Well, the only thing that I could think about— Well, of course, it was to train young musicians—young, talented people—boys and girls. It was a stepping stone for them to go further if they were so inclined, and I think some of them have gone into the—
EC: —symphony. Yeah.
LM: But there is no affiliation per se between the Houston Symphony and the—
EC: Youth Symphony?
LM: The Youth Symphony.
EC: No. Not when I was connected with it—none whatever. They were each individually operated.
LM: Did anyone ever try to establish some kind of affiliation?
EC: Not that I know about.
LM: I just—I know in other cities, like Chicago, there’s a very close tie between the Youth 18:04 Symphony and the Symphony Orchestra, and I was wondering if anybody had tried to—
EC: Not that I— Now, we— When Mrs. Hill and I were working on the Youth Symphony, we tried to get Ima Hogg interested in the Youth Symphony, and we did get her to pay a little attention. But she was too interested in the big symphony, and it was a job. She—
EC: —to promote it as she did. She made it.
LM: Who were some of the other benefactors of the Houston Youth Symphony, besides Miss Ima?
EC: Well, I— Well, old Felix of the—Felix Café—he worked with us pretty good there. And there was two or three other fellows, and I’ve forgotten their names now.
LM: I’ve noticed in some old newspaper clippings that I went through that there was a ballet company associated with the Houston Youth Symphony.
EC: Yeah, but I didn’t know much about that.
LM: So that’s a fairly recent thing.
EC: It could be, yeah.
LM: They were honored recently with a trip to Scotland.
LM: So apparently they’re a pretty fine group. Did the Houston Youth Symphony play with any noted soloist? Did famous—?
EC: Not that I know about.
LM: —soloist come down and sing with them?
EC: Not that I know about.
LM: Do you know specifically of any members of the Houston Youth Symphony who have gone on to play—?
EC: No, I don’t.
LM: —with either the—?
EC: No, I sure don’t. I sure don’t.
LM: But you’re pretty sure there are some that went on to play with regular orchestras.
EC: Yes, I think we had a few that went on, but I’m sorry to say that, in my work with the Youth Symphony, I did not become familiar with any of the performers—the kids. My work with them was promoting them and doing what I could to keep the organization going and to build it up, which we did. We— I’m sure that we helped to put it on the map, because old Webb was struggling to keep it going when we entered into it.
LM: 20:57 So you were involved in the financial end of it.
EC: Well [chuckles]—
LM: So to speak.
EC: I didn’t go down my hip pocket for much of it, but I— Well, I got a— Old Felix one time—we were putting on a—some kind of a promoting program, and we needed some money, and I told Felix that we needed about a thousand or fifteen hundred dollars. And so the board met in his café, and he reached up in this pocket of his coat and pulled out a— Let’s see, he pulled out a thousand- dollar bill and then a five hundred-dollar bill.
LM: [laughs] Well, that’s certainly extraordinary. He must have loved the Youth Symphony very much to have done something like that.
LM: There was one thing I couldn’t help but notice as I did my background research, and that was in 1958 there was a kind of shake-up on the board of directors. There were some hurt feelings and there— People were taken off the board and some new people from the Parent’s Club were put on.
EC: In what board?
LM: For the—
LM: The board of the Houston Youth Symphony.
EC: 22:20 Houston Youth— Yeah. Now that I don’t know a thing in the world about that, except what I heard and what I read in the paper, because I was not with it then. That was when? In—?
EC: 1958? No. I wasn’t with it then.
EC: No, but I did hear about it. Yeah.
LM: For clarification, what years were you actively associated with the Houston Youth Symphony?
EC: I can’t—I couldn’t tell you, but it was in the Forties. I’m pretty sure.
LM: But you—
LM: You did some work with it in the 1950s.
EC: It probably reached in the— I forget dates. Matter of fact is I don’t pay much attention to them no way.
EC: Oh, yeah. So this is 1948, and it was long about this time that I was— I was active both in the Barber Shop and the Youth Symphony at the same time. I was working with both of them.
LM: Do you think the Houston Youth Symphony has kept up its quality pretty much?
EC: Yeah. Yeah, I do.
LM: So you still occasionally hear a performance.
LM: You occasionally hear a performance.
EC: Yeah. Yeah. And I just heard on the radio that they’re taking their auditions tomorrow, I believe, out at the Miller—something—
LM: The Miller Theater.
EC: —Theater—for new members of the Youth Symphony. In other words, they’re trying to get a new one, and I guess they will. Because if they get— There’s a lot of talent that when they hear about something like that, they flock to it. Matter of fact is I just heard the other day some little kid asking where he could go to— I’ve forgotten what instrument he played. He said he played some instrument, and he thought himself pretty good. He wanted to know where he could go to perform. So the Youth Symphony would be a place for him to go. And since they’re taking auditions, maybe he got into that. That just happened a couple of days ago.
LM: 25:03 Is it pretty tough to get into it?
LM: Is it pretty tough to get into it? Are the auditions pretty hard?
EC: That I couldn’t answer. I imagine— I don’t guess they pin them down too close. If they can perform pretty good on the instrument that they choose, they take them.
LM: Uh-Hunh (Affirmative).
EC: And they give them training, of course, if they need it.
LM: And they supply the instruments—usually.
LM: Well, we’ve gone over the Youth Symphony, and of course, your doings in Houston involved much more than the Youth Symphony, but that was one thing we especially wanted to talk about, because you were in on it pretty much from the beginning.
LM: I’d like to return now to your business activities, if I might. Do you feel, sometimes, a little ambivalent about the growth of the city—a little doubtful? You mentioned earlier in the interview that Houston was pretty much a town when you first came here. Do you miss the old Houston?
EC: Well, in a way, yeah. But then I’m proud of Houston. I’m proud of the growth. As I told you, I saw them excavate for the Rice Hotel—hauling the dirt out of there with mules. That was before automobiles that amounted to anything. Yeah. They didn’t have any trucks. And I also saw them digging our ship channel. I stood down there and watched them. And I remember I went to— I went up to Chicago on a convention of our cleaners and dyers, and so we’re sitting there in the meeting hall before whatever activities was going to begin, and something was said about Texas—and they knew I was from Texas—and one fellow says, “Why is it that Texas [sic] are always bragging?
EC: I says, “Well, I could give you several instances, but I’ll just give you one.” I says, “When I first moved to Houston—“ I says, “Transportation was slim, and we dug a ditch from Houston down to Galveston to float our groceries up.”
EC: 27:54 And I says, “It’s come to be the second largest seaport in the nation.” I says, “That’s something to brag about, isn’t it?” [chuckles]
LM: It sure is. It sure is. Of course, on the other hand, growth brings some things with it like they’re going to tear the Rice Hotel down now.
EC: You think so?
LM: I think so. I’m afraid so, let’s put it that way.
EC: Well, I thought there was some doubt about it.
LM: Was the coming of the big corporations hard on the small business man—?
EC: Oh, sure.
LM: —in Houston?
EC: Sure, sure. It hurts the small— I’ve always said progress is cruel. And sure, big businesses— Well, I don’t think there’s a better example than the grocery business. Our supermarkets have put the little grocery man out of business.
LM: That’s true.
EC: Very few of them left.
LM: 29:00 In 1912 I suppose Houston was a town that was dominated by the small business man.
LM: Pretty much.
EC: Yeah. I can remember Wine Gartners ?? first little old store.
LM: Where was that?
EC: On Main Street—first little store.
LM: Well, for good or for ill, Houston has grown, and I’d like to ask you who you think the men are who are most responsible for the growth of this city?
EC: Oh, well, there’s several—there’s several of them. I guess old Oscar Holcombe had about as much to do with it as most anybody.
LM: [chuckles] That’s a pretty common answer.
LM: That’s a pretty common answer. Most people do mention him.
LM: Did you know him?
EC: Oh, yeah.
LM: What was he like as a man?
EC: Oh, he was a very—he was jovial kind of a fellow and a very friendly fellow. Had to be to do what he did. But he was for Oscar.
LM: Politics were pretty hotly contested—
LM: —in those days. Do you remember any particular elections—stick in your mind?
EC: No. I never did pay much attention to politics anyway. I’ve seen so much corruption in politics until I pay very little attention to it.
LM: In Houston?
LM: In Houston?
EC: Well, not so much in Houston as— I was in Memphis, Tennessee for a while, and I saw elections carried out something like Hoffine’s carried out here with his—hauling people from poll to poll and voting them.
LM: And this is Roy Hoffines now.
LM: Oh, I didn’t know that he had done anything like that.
EC: You didn’t?
EC: I thought that was common knowledge.
LM: Well, not common to me. Tell me about it.
LM: Was this a controversial election at the time? This was the what—the 1950 election?
EC: No. It was the ’73, wasn’t it?
LM: Oh, oh, I thought we were talking about Roy Hoffines—Judge Roy Hoffines.
EC: 31:21 No. Oh, well, he had his day too.
LM: [chuckles] So then you don’t think that the political corruption is getting any better.
EC: No, I sure don’t. However, it may be now— I was just reading in the paper this morning, they got this fellow—Parr—who was a judge down there in Duval County—judge down there , and his uncle was a mayor, and now his uncle—they cornered him to a point that he went off and committed suicide. And now this Parr—I’ve forgotten his first name now—he’s in the penitentiary. They got him in jail—a judge. That’s politics.
LM: That’s pretty serious.
LM: Well, other than politicians, who were some of the men that were responsible for the growth of the city—in your opinion?
EC: Well, I don’t know that I can call to mind any particular politician that was too responsible.
LM: How about Louis Welch?
EC: He was a good mayor. He was a good mayor.
LM: Well, so you feel that the growth of Houston has brought some good things and some bad.
EC: Well, like I say, progress is cruel. But of course, I heard some man on the radio on one of the talk programs the other night—about Hoffines going to Washington and bragging on Houston about what the opportunities were here, and he says, “Don’t you know—?” Says, “That’s going to make people pour into Houston. They’ll come in here and take jobs away from our citizens.” Well, foot! He don’t realize that what makes a city or a nation or anything else is people.
EC: If you don’t have people, you ain’t got nothing.
LM: That’s right. And I got news for him. People have been flooding into this city for a better part of 30 years now.
EC: Yeah [chuckles].
LM: So you’re glad you came to Houston.
LM: Take it all around.
EC: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Sure—[voice trails off; unintelligible].
LM: Mr. Coats, I’m certainly glad that I’ve had a chance to talk to you this morning. And on behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives and Research Center, I’d like to thank you very much for the interview.
EC: Well, I’m happy to give it. Not only that, I like to talk about those things— I wish my memory was better than it was so I could remember names—not like a lot of people that I know. But I forget names. I never forget a face, but I forget a name.
LM: Well, you’ve recorded some very valuable information.
EC: Well, I’m glad I did.
LM: Thank you.
EC: Well, you can cut that off—
[end of interview]