By Wendy Kilmer
Photography by Laura Seaton
Family bonding, live music, a relaxed atmosphere and a focus on the basic human impulse to play. Those priorities are at the heart of Texas’ oldest continuously operated miniature golf course and its owner of the last 23 years, Chris “Doc” England.
In 1947, the location on North Second Street was a logical spot for the Veterans of Foreign Wars to open a miniature golf course for soldiers returning from World War II. A bowling alley and a city swimming pool were nearby, as well as the VFW post itself, making for an Abilene entertainment hub of sorts.
Today, the mini golf course location is further from the beaten path of most Abilenians, but the local bands, cheerful family vibe and the simple recreation of miniature golf keep families, teens, college students and music lovers coming back.
England bought the park 23 years ago from a friend’s father who owned it at the time.
“When we were thinking about buying it, my wife and I came out here on a Saturday night and the place was empty,” England says. “It was the night of the [O.J. Simpson] white Bronco chase, and everyone was at home watching it on TV. There was one other couple there, on the other side of the park, and we could hear every word they said. We agreed the first thing we would do if we bought it was install a sound system for some music.”
At the time, the golf course was called Green Acres and England recalls that it was awash in shades of green colors. England added some color variety, replaced the two by fours on the holes with railroad ties, and added some separation between the two 18-hole courses to define the two spaces. Perhaps most significantly, he built a stage in the corner for bands to play live music.
“Youth group praise and worship bands were a big thing back then,” England says, “And there were garage bands on every corner.”
Nearly a quarter century later, Play Faire doesn’t have as many high school bands but does have an established line up of local music groups playing every Friday and Saturday night.
“Abilene, in all it’s uniqueness, has an amazing level of musicianship,” England says. “The best musicians play here. It’s a family place, not a smoke filled bar, but it’s still cool.”
Local performers seem to agree. Abilene’s Tony Barker has been a regular for the better part of the two decades England has owned the park.
“The ambiance of the park, especially at dusk, is nothing short of magical,” Barker said. “Every visitor can feel it, and that energy bounces back and forth between the audience and the performer. Every musician I speak to that plays there has commented on that in one form or another.”
The family-centeredness of the venue is another unique aspect for a musician.
“There are very few places where kids can experience live music without forcing Mom and Dad to have uncomfortable conversations on the way home,” Barker said. “There are listeners who will only come to see me at Play Faire Park because of the environment that Doc cultivates.”
Pair those perks with a high quality sound system, England’s genuine respect and appreciation for musicians, and a mild West Texas summer evening, and the venue is nearly impossible to beat, Barker says.
“The playing experience is better than almost any other venue I’ve played in from San Francisco to Florida,” Barker said. “It’s an intimate concert feeling that, I believe, is what most performers start out seeking to experience in the first place. The audience can feel that something special is happening, and more energy flows back to the performer, forming a positive feedback loop that keeps getting better as the event progresses.”
While finding talented local musicians hasn’t been a challenge, maintaining a strong customer base has presented challenges including location and cultural changes, England said.
Focus on Fun
“When we took over, North First was the main drag,” he said. “Everyone knew where we were. Now, the location is hidden. We have some of the same challenges as downtown – having to put on a circus to get people to come. We face some cultural challenges too, like air conditioning and 200 plus channels on TV. If I were a businessman and in this for the money, we wouldn’t still be here. But we are still here because I know this makes Abilene a better place. What we [Abilene] say we are, that’s what this park is.”
England’s passion for simple, play-based outdoor entertainment taking precedence over financial acumen makes sense for someone who majored in both recreation and psychology in college.
“I believe in the value of recreation, in teaching kids to use their downtime in a positive way,” Englad said. “That’s why we have bands. We want it to be a cool, hip place where people aren’t drunk and out of control. It’s a BYOB atmosphere. Have a glass of wine or a beer, but keep it under control.
“I get to see families come out here on a regular basis and interact with each other. They get in here and do it together. Teens come in with heads down, embarrassed to be with their parents, but they leave as a family. That’s my joy, when I hear laughing, giggling, family bonding.”
Sheila Kitts experienced that fun family bonding as a child and remains a loyal customer with her own family. She recalls her favorite birthday party as a child taking place at Play Faire Park.
“It all seemed so magical,” Kitts said. “It was one of my favorite places for my dad to take me as a kid. Then I went there on dates as I got older and girls’ nights out.”
Now with children of her own, new memories are underway. Her 7-year-old twins recently celebrated their birthdays there as well.
“It’s more than miniature golf,” Kitts said. “My kids could play the tetherball and hoola hoop for hours. And best of all, there are no tokens, no loud flashing machines, no begging for more money to win cheap toys. It’s just good clean fun.”