Slinky Slithers

The real story of Miller Outdoor Theatre: Inside Houston's outdoor arts institution

The real story of Miller Outdoor Theatre: Inside Houston's outdoor arts institution

News_Miller Outdoor Theatre
A scene from the Miller Outdoor Theatre's early days. Courtesy of Story Sloane's Gallery
News_Cissy Segall Davis
Cissy Segall Davis, Miller Outdoor Theatre managing director Photo by David W. Clements
News_Miller Outdoor Theatre
News_Cissy Segall Davis

While constricting neckties and ankle-breaking stilettos seem to be the uniform du jour for some highbrow art performances, Houston concertgoers should give thanks to a venue where fashion is meaningless and comfort is king. A land of lawn seating and picnic baskets, where vino is optional, and encouraged.

But don't let the informal ambiance fool you. If it's not good enough for the best stages around the country, you won't find it at Miller Outdoor Theatre, either.

Since its dedication as Miller Memorial Theatre in 1923, the venue and 7.5 acres of greens have served as the country's only proscenium theater of its kind. It presented over 140 professional performances to 431,000 people last year, free of charge. That's more than some of the indoor theaters in town.

Back in its formative years, Miller was built as a permanent bandstand flanked by 20 limestone columns (now part of the Mecom Rockwell Colonnade Fountain across from Hotel ZaZa) hosting pageants, sports radio broadcasts and later accommodating the Houston Symphony's first outdoor concert in August of 1941, drawing an estimated crowd of 15,000 even with temperatures reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

It wasn't until 1952 that a city official pointed out that Miller Outdoor Theatre, not Miller Memorial, was the intended name. It's unsure of how the misunderstanding happened.

Cissy Segall Davis, Miller Outdoor Theatre's managing director, has been involved with the venue's activities since 1979 while working at Theatre Under the Stars. Today, she has quite an arduous but richly rewarding responsibility: Working with local arts organizations to program an eight-month performance season and finding touring groups to fill in any cultural and artistic gaps.

"What you see when you look out is an audience that reflects Houston's diversity, including all age, ethnic and socio-economic groups, all sitting together watching the same show at the same time," Segall Davis said. "Anyone can come here to see great performances totally free of charge.

"This is a gift and we are very lucky the city invests in this facility and program."

The Miller Theatre Advisory Board (MTAB) — a 21-member governing group appointed by the Mayor and approved by City Council with five chairs designated for Rice University, University of Houston, Texas Southern University, Houston Independent School District and South Main Alliance — administers a grants program for Houston’s finest performing arts and community-based organizations to perform free of charge at Miller Theatre. Roughly, 85 percent of what's on stage is from these Houston organizations.

And with monies primarily coming from the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funds through the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA), there is a strong desire to ensure the programs promote tourism and are of the highest artistic merit.

Working with Houston non-profit groups to schedule out the season, underwriting is available for up to 50 percent of the production costs. Segall Davis and her team assess issues of quality, diversity, broad popular appeal and cost effectiveness, followed by a thorough evaluation of the performance.

For touring groups, the funding process is different as HOT funds can only be granted to organizations that operate within city limits.

"This is such a fabulous venue, so well equipped, that the Miller Board wanted to augment the schedule of free performances by Houston’s performing arts groups with outstanding regional, national and international touring artists and groups," Segall Davis said. "The board takes on the responsibility of raising funds to cover these costs."

The Aluminum Show, a touring troupe from Israel, opens the Miller Outdoor Theatre season this Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.

Think Texas big aluminum slinkys slithering about the stage, creating a sparkling pseudo sci-fi family-friendly world of industrial-meets illusion and fantasy. Using found materials from factories, dancers tell an all-familiar story of a young futuristic machine determined to find its parents. 

Spoiler alert: portions of the show are interactive.