(Colt Stadium at upper left)
Under its circular roof lay a beauty parlor, chapel, children's library and playground, five restaurants, a barber shop, a bowling alley, a movie theater, and even a presidential suite appointed with Louis XIV furniture. Bob Hope once said that "if it had a maternity ward and a cemetery, you'd never have to leave."
Men named Nolan and Earl put opposing players on their behinds here, one with a blistering fastball and the other with a withering stiff-arm that felt like a bolt of lightning. But somehow, no matter who was the star of the event, the building itself was often the top attraction. In its heyday, this structure was unquestionably the most ambitious and forward-thinking project of its kind in the world, described at its opening as "a tribute to the boundless imagination of man" by the Rev. Billy Graham. It was such a phenomenon that within a year of its completion, it was the third most visited man-made tourist attraction in the US, trailing only Mt. Rushmore and the Golden Gate Bridge.
But oh, how times have changed. Now, a mere 40 years after it debuted, it is considered a relic, as outdated and useless as a cheap polyester leisure suit, reduced to hosting high school football games and the occasional monster truck show. "It" is the Astrodome, a once-proud product of a city with a true can-do spirit, now being replaced by more modern, single-use facilities. While it has been the site of a number of spectacular events, the story of the Astrodome has never been merely one of games and entertainers; it is the story of a remarkable building, and how a self-described huckster born in Beaumont, Texas was able to build it.
Roy was a gifted motivator and speaker even as a young man, and soon made a name for himself in Houston where his family moved in the 1920s. By age 14, he was booking and promoting dance and live music events on his own, driving around town in a garishly decorated Model A to advertise them. Offered a scholarship to the University of Texas at age 16, he chose to stay home and attend Rice Institute due to the untimely death of his father; at the time, Rice offered free tuition to all who were accepted for enrollment. At 18, Roy was awarded the first scholarship ever given by the Houston Law School for his "speaking abilities and other possibilities." He briefly practiced law, but politics beckoned, however, and Roy became the youngest man elected to the Texas state legislature at age 22. He was flashy and flamboyant, a gifted speaker, a P.T. Barnum of politics. Here he began cultivating a group of powerful friends in the Democrat party who would become lifelong admirers and supporters -- people like John Connally and a young man named Lyndon Baines Johnson. Within two years he was elected the youngest county judge in the nation, and the man described as the "Boy Orator" and the "Bayou Buffalo" would be known simply as "The Judge" for the remainder of his life.
A rising star in the Democrat party, he was the campaign manager for his friend LBJ's ill-fated 1941 senate run. However, with the Judge it was hard to tell where politics ended and business began over the next several years; he was skillful at doling out political favors and getting involved with local real estate and other business ventures. He left office at 32 to start a string of radio stations with the aid of wealthy benefactors, and by 37 was a bona fide millionaire. While often described as arrogant and ruthless, even his detractors felt he was very forward-thinking, particularly in regards to new business opportunities and promotion ideas. The Judge jumped back into politics in 1952, being elected mayor of Houston with the help of close aides Jack Valenti and eventual Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski. By this time the Judge was used to getting his way, and frequently butted heads with the City Council. He eventually was impeached and lost a special election midway through his second term. By this time, however, he was firmly entrenched in local business, and expanded his empire to include a television station and extensive real estate holdings with the aid of wealthy partner R.E. "Bob" Smith.
But the Judge recognized that Houston had a slight climate problem -- unbearable heat and humidity, violent summer weather, and mosquitoes the size of vultures would make the idea of enjoying a major league baseball game in the open air a bit less than desirable. And so the credit for first proposing what would become the Harris County Domed Stadium rightly goes to the Judge, who was also politically savvy enough to sell the idea of public financing for the project. A National League expansion franchise, the Colt .45s, was awarded, and a $22 million tax-supported bond election narrowly passed in 1961.
While the Colt .45s played in a nearby temporary stadium, construction started and a 24-foot deep, 700-foot wide hole was dug. Soon, however, it was apparent more money was needed. The likelihood of passing a new bond issue was very questionable, so the Judge turned to support from local black leaders, promising the new facility would be fully integrated. The issue narrowly passed and he got the additional $9½ million he needed.
the roof skeleton
Several things we now take for granted were first used in the Dome. 54 luxury "skyboxes" were built, holding 24 people each, initially leased at $15,000 for five years. All fans were treated to plush seats upholstered in just about every color of the rainbow; it was an orgy of color ready-made for the first color television broadcast of a major league baseball game. It was designed from the start as a multi-use facility; seating capacity varied from 54,000 for baseball to 63,000 for football. A 64-foot diameter gondola was suspended from the center of the dome, providing previously unheard of aerial views of games in progress.
The $2 million dollar scoreboard was truly Texan in scope -- over four stories high, 474 feet long, with over a half-acre of programmable lights. With each home run blasted by the home team, the scoreboard operator would unleash the Home Run Spectacular. The wall of lights and speakers would erupt for a full 45 seconds, sending snorting and stomping steers draped with Texas and US flags racing across the screen, followed by cartoon cowboys firing off bullets that ricocheted to and fro. It was as loud as a freight train, and opposing pitchers absolutely hated it.
The Dome was finally ready for the beginning of the 1965 baseball season. A new name was
needed for the team to reflect the new stadium's grandeur. Taking a cue from the space
program, the Judge decided on the Houston Astros, and soon the name Astrodome was applied
to the stadium. All stadium workers wore space-themed uniforms. The groundsdskeepers were
called "Earthmen" and wore mock space suits. The official opening night festivities were
attended by the Gemini Twins,
Gus Grissom and John Young, who had just three weeks before been the first astronaut pair
sent into space. They came with 21 other astronauts, all of whom were given lifetime
passes to Astrodome games. The Judge's friends also filed in, including Governor
John Connally and President Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, for whom the
was specifically built. Celebrities galore filtered through the
Judge's private suite,
which was garishly decorated with antiques, numerous television sets, and gold plated
Aside from a troubling problem with glare from the Lucite panels during day games, the Astrodome was an unqualified success. As is well known, the panels were painted, the Aggie-approved grass died, and the last two weeks of the s eason were played on spray-painted dirt. The solution devised by the Judge and Monsanto, AstroTurf, was finally installed by early morning hours of the opening day of the 1966 season. Monsanto beat the Judge to the punch and quietly registered the name AstroTurf, but it took a full seven years for the product to become profitable. Interestingly, most of the money Monsanto made off of Astroturf came from sales of doormats, not fields, but it became its most widely used trademark.
The Judge eventually surrounded the Astrodome with the Astrohall, several Astrodomain hotels, and the Astroworld theme park. This ultimate promoter and huckster also bought the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, booking it into extended runs in the Dome. As one observer put it, Goldfinger tried to knock off Ft. Knox, while the Judge built his own.
The Astrodome went through a few facelifts over the years, and a few other domed stadia were built as well. But they were mere imitators. The Astrodome is a true original, not named after a corporation or even the man who built it. There is a building near the Dome that is named after him you may have heard of; the next time you are watching a basketball game broadcast from the University of Houston's Hofheinz Pavillion, think instead of baseball and the Astrodome, and think of the imagination, drive and vision of a man named Judge Roy Hofheinz.
(Much of this info is found in The Grand Huckster: Houston's Judge Roy Hofheinz, Genius of the Astrodome, by Edgar W. Ray. Lots of photos and Astrodome history can be found here.)