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A Conversation with Miller Outdoor Theatre's Cissy Segall Davis

Houston • May 18, 2023

For 100 years, Miller Outdoor Theatre has brought some of the best shows by Houston area performing arts groups to local audiences. During a nine-month annual season, the theater on the north end of Hermann Park showcases top-tier talent for free, engaging locals and visitors in the arts. The space has undergone more than a half-dozen major renovations over the last century and today can accommodate nearly 6,000 patrons between covered seating and the hillside lawn.

The beloved theater is maintained by Houston First Corporation (HFC) and programmed by the nonprofit Miller Outdoor Theatre Advisory Board (MTAB). HFC's Shawn Hauptmann serves as GM of the facility and leads a team that runs operations. “The beauty of Miller is how easily everyone—across the diverse strata of Houston’s population—come together to enjoy the programming. There’s something for everyone in the shows that happen here. It’s really the people’s theater.”

We spoke with Miller’s Managing Director Cissy Segall Davis about the theater's centennial and what it’s meant for Houston and the performing arts community through the years.

HFC: Can you start by giving us a little history. How was Miller originally envisioned and developed?

CSD: Jesse Wright Miller, a cotton broker and mining engineer, left the City of Houston several properties “to be used for municipal purposes” when he died. The city sold those properties and with the proceeds from the sale built the first Miller Memorial Theatre on 7.5 acres in Hermann Park. Designed by William Ward Watkin and built by Tom Tellepsen, the original venue was an amphitheater surrounded by 10-Corinthean-style limestone columns on either side. The two live oaks that bookend the theater were already established in 1923 and still stand proud sentry 100 years later. Miller Memorial Theatre was dedicated on May 12, 1923, with a municipal pageant “Springtime of our Nation” with 2,500 performers!

In August 1952, Hugo Koehn, the head of Houston’s Parks and Recreation Department, reported that the city had somehow called Miller Memorial Theatre by the wrong name since its inception, so the venue was renamed Miller Outdoor Theatre.

In the early 1960s, city leaders wanted to offer bigger productions, and envisioned the type of venue that we have today. They asked voters to approve a bond to construct a new Miller Outdoor Theatre and the voters overwhelmingly approved.

The current theatre building, designed by Eugene Werlin and Associates, won several awards: the American Iron and Steel Institute’s Biannual Award, the American Institute of Steel Construction’s Award of Excellence, and the James E. Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation Award.

The building opened September 1, 1968, with a performance by the Houston Symphony. On September 15, Theatre Under the Stars presented its first ever musical, “Bells Are Ringing,” kicking off the annual tradition of free musicals. Orange plastic seats were attached upside down on the pitched roof giving the theater better acoustics and a fanciful appearance. The seats were removed when the sound system was upgraded in 1985.

Miller is widely recognized because of its free programming. Has the theater always been free and how unique is that among similar venues around the country?

We know that there were times in the early years when the theatre charged a nominal amount for some prime sports broadcasts—the 1925 World Series and the Tunney-Dempsey boxing rematch for instance. When the Symphony first performed at Miller in 1941, it was free thanks to underwriting from a donor, with a “free will offering” if folks were so moved. Certainly, since the current venue opened in 1968, performances have been free of charge for the public. What makes Miller so unique is that it is a hybrid venue that takes the best of both worlds—a full proscenium venue with outdoor seating. We are not aware of others of this type in the U.S. Also, the extraordinary quality and quantity of free performances in an 8-month season is found nowhere else. Annually, Miller hosts 120 to 130 performances.

Can you talk a little about the unique relationship between the Miller Theatre Advisory Board and Houston First Corporation in operating the venue?

This is a most unique partnership between two different organizations. MTAB is a 501C3 organization established by City Ordinance in 1970, whose board is appointed by the Mayor, approved by City Council, and tasked with programming Miller Outdoor Theatre. Houston First Corporation, a local government corporation, manages all the city’s cultural and convention facilities and parking garages. What MTAB does directly impacts HFC and what HFC does directly impacts MTAB. Miller Outdoor Theatre, the facility and the programming, are in the care and custody of MTAB and HFC. The Miller crew, under Shawn Hauptmann’s leadership, are considered the finest in the city. They do everything possible to ensure that every performance is first rate, regardless of the experience of the producing company.

How does Miller go about programming its season each year?

MTAB receives a dedicated percentage of Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) from the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance. With those funds, MTAB conducts a grants program for Houston performing arts and cultural organizations. They apply once a year with a proposal for free-to-the-public performance(s) at Miller.

MTAB carefully evaluates the proposals and offers grants for production costs to a diverse group of grantees. MTAB makes certain that programming is artistically excellent and culturally diverse, giving grants to large, mid-size and small organizations for daytime and evening performances. In addition, MTAB engages international, regional and local touring acts to address genre needs or to make certain Houston audiences can experience great performances free of charge.

What are some of the bigger challenges the theater faces?

Funding on both the venue side and programming side is one of the biggest challenges. Both HFC and MTAB operate with HOT funds—a floating number each year. The pandemic was devastating for MTAB, funding dropped more than 60% in both 2020 and 2021. HFC was forced to reduce staffing levels throughout its ranks, including 6 from the Miller crew. Resources are returning to pre-pandemic levels, but any natural disaster, such as a hurricane or flood, or global pandemic can reverse that very quickly. On a regular basis, the weather is a challenge. Since Hurricane Harvey and the multiple years of severe flooding throughout the Houston region, many in our community will not leave their home if rain is threatened. We do have 1,700 covered seats, but the hillside is open to the elements. Also, severe heat or cold can negatively impact attendance.

The original Miller Memorial Theatre

What are some memorable events from the theater’s 100 years?

Certainly the very first performances at the original theater. I am still mystified as to how they accommodated 2,500 performers in a space that didn’t have dressing rooms or restrooms! The first Houston Symphony performance in 1941…that set in motion annual free offerings at Miller Outdoor Theatre that have continued to this day. The first Theatre Under the Stars performance of Bells are Ringing on Sept 15, 1968. The first Houston Shakespeare Festival performances began in 1975.

Here are just a few more:

  • Saturday Night Live original cast with John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtain, Laraine Newman, Garret Morris and Gilda Radner performed at Miller on August 3, 1976.
  • In July 1979, the Houston Symphony welcomed Big Bird to Miller! Thousands attended.
  • Tejano superstar Selena performed with her band Los Dinos at Miller when she was 16 years old in 1987.
  • Little Joe y La Familia, one of the most popular Tejano fusion bands in the country and winner of five Grammy Awards for their music, are frequent and immensely popular performers at Miller during the annual Festival Chicano.
  • Peter Frampton rocked the Miller stage with his The Art of Control Tour October 31, 1982.
  • In 2005 the first MTAB presented show was Joe Sears & Jaston Williams’ hilarious “GREATER TUNA.”
  • Chubby Checker showed his legendary moves in 2012, 2015 and 2018.
  • Broadway legend Tommy Tune, a 10-time Tony Award winner and native Texan performed at Miller in 2016.
  • The band America headlined Miller in April 2022.
  • Dave Mason, Rare Earth, Steppenwolf, Buck Owens, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakum, John Lee Hooker, Conway Twitty, Doug Supernaw, The Mavericks, Little Joe, Ramon Ayala, Ram Herrera, La Sombra, La Fiebre, Matisyahu, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Con Funk Shun, Cameo, Ronnie Laws, Doctor John, Esperanza Spalding, The Flat Landers, Casper Rawls, Doyle Bramhall all graced the Miller Outdoor Theatre stage.
  • International performers: Ballet Folklorico de Mexico de Amalia Hernandez, Soweto Gospel Choir (South Africa), Golden Dragon Acrobats, GuGu Drum Group from Shanghai, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (South Africa) and The Royal Drummers of Burundi.

People might wonder why Miller isn’t programmed year-round considering Houston’s mild winters. I’m sure there’s a reason.

The season typically runs from mid-March through mid-November. We close in the winter so that all the equipment can be checked, repaired and cleaned: the speakers, every light fixture, the stage. Nine months of activity in an open-air environment can be brutal on equipment. It’s also a chance for the crew to breathe! The season is packed—every weekend for 8 months is a marathon. Plus, the “downtime” gives MTAB time to prepare for the next season: brochures, website, marketing. And, we have found that our audiences are not as comfortable when the weather is 55° or lower vs 95° or above. “It’s too cold for Miller!”

What do you love most about your job as managing director of the theater?

I get to follow my personal passion every day. Making the performing and cultural arts available to all regardless of ability to pay brings me tremendous joy. And I love interacting with the audience—the multi-generations coming together to enjoy all sorts of performances; the people who come to nearly every performance; the couples who tell me their first date was at Miller. Sharing extraordinary performances with a diverse gathering of Houstonians and visitors is a true pleasure. And I love working with the many organizations that produce top rate performances each year.

The opportunity to work with the Miller Theatre Advisory Board members has been phenomenal. All of the volunteers are dedicated to ensuring this program remains excellent and free to the public!

Equally importantly, working with Shawn Hauptmann and the Miller crew has been one of the highlights of my career. I’ve been in the entertainment industry since 1972. The professionalism, dedication and extreme care with which they approach their jobs is unmatched. Simply the best.

What are you most excited about regarding the future of Miller?

The theatre has evolved since 1923—it has changed for the better and continues to do so. Miller is the place for all—no one is excluded here.

I am also excited about the current capital campaign, which will fund three projects designed to improve the audience experience of Miller. The future is bright!

Learn more about Miller and upcoming performances here