From a glass-enclosed box near the 474-foot-long electronic scoreboard, Kubla Khan surveys his stately pleasure dome, talking about $37 million worth of detail in a kind of Texas "poor boy" lingo. Only the scene isn't Xanadu, it is Houston, and Kubla himself is actually Judge Roy Hofheinz, prime mover and dreamer of the domed-stadium dream. He is looking out into the Houston Astrodome, a structure 710 feet in diameter which may very well make obsolete all other stadiums in the world.
This week, on Friday evening, April 9, the Astrodome will open officially, with one of the most unusual baseball weekends ever scheduled: five exhibition games between the Houston Astros and two teams of visitors, the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles. The program is designed to measure up to the Astros' new home, the first and largest self-enclosed, completely air-conditioned sports arena ever created.
For weeks now, in spring training camps, in architectural and technical circles and at Texas cocktail parties, the Astrodome has been the common topic. This mammoth structure shimmers whitely over nine and a half acres of Texas flatland, a prophecy come true. Back in 1939, air-conditioning pioneer Willis Carrier said the day would come when men would live under domes of transparent material, ruling out weather as a factor in work and play. Roy Hofheinz believed in that prediction.
Of course, they all laughed when the judge sat down five years ago to play Astrodome builder. Nobody thought it could be done and, although the premiere is virtually upon us, many still doubt that the domed stadium represents the shape of things to come. What they cannot afford to doubt, however, is the shape and substance of Judge Hofheinz, a tall, round, fiftyish Texan who corralled the dissenters like some stalwart quarter horse herding steers into a chute.
April 12, 1965
The judge is a shrewd and sophisticated operator in the Lyndon B. Johnson genre—country-boy geniality mixed with a gimlet-eyed grasp of the realities. In fact, he was the President's first political campaign manager many years ago. In 1936, at 24, he became the youngest man ever to be a U.S. county judge, serving for eight years. Credited with the foresight that gave Houston a head start in its current business boom, he became the most controversial mayor that Houston ever had. He also parlayed a radio station, a sludge industry and a law firm into a multimillion-dollar business. As a somewhat reluctant admirer has said, "The judge has to be king of something. He is too smart to be governor of this state, so he is settling at the moment for building something everyone said couldn't be built. Now that he has proved them wrong, he will also prove he can make it pay off."
It was Hofheinz' pressuring that produced the $37 million complex ($6 million is private investment) that made this impossible stadium possible. But nowhere is his Midas touch—and taste—more evident than within the confines of the Dome itself. The judge's love for all that glitters begins with the Dome offices. Here there are yards and yards of deep gold carpet, lush velvet scarlet-and-gold chairs supported by rampant Austrian lions or gold metal frames, specially designed gold telephones on every gold-trimmed Louis XIV desk. In the bathrooms adjoining the offices of Hofheinz and his co-partner, R. E. (Bob) Smith, the fixtures have been sprayed with Velvatex, a kind of yellow-gold plush that covers the lid, the seat and even the pipes. It is hardly surprising that a few unkind Texans refer to the judge as "Giltfinger."
Upstairs in the glittery black-and-gold glass-enclosed kitchen of his box, Hofheinz pours coffee into gold Flintridge china cups and taps his cigar into a gilded ceramic ashtray shaped like an outfielder's glove. Yellow velvet chairs on gold-ball legs can be pushed up to the window so that VITs (Very Important Texans) can look down at the green diamond below. The adjoining living room boasts an aureate Oriental dragon, and a circular stair leads to a Fu Manchu bedroom which Hofheinz admits is "just a showcase for my Madison Avenue friends who think Indians are loose when they go west of the Hudson." Even as the judge displays his sauna, another gilded toilet and some of the 26,000 pounds of art picked up in a six-day tour through Hong Kong, Thailand and the Middle East, he explains them away as window dressing. "Dealing in intangibles as I do," says he, "the sooner people see something like this and realize you have some ideas, the easier it is to sell your product."
Just what, you may ask, has all this live-in luxury and astral salesmanship got to do with sport? The answer depends on who's talking. As one of the dozens of architects who worked on the project remarks, "the stadium is a lot more than a baseball field, despite all that stuff about it being the perfect and only fair sports arena. You know the things Hofheinz is saying—that it will end the excuses of the Alibi Ikes who make up ballplaying, because there are no shadows on the field, there is perfectly diffused light, no soggy earth, no wind, no hot sun and no land curve. Actually, Hofheinz has been more interested in the peripheral things that attract the general public. In fact, the ball team was the last thing on the judge's mind while we sweated building this thing."
Whatever was on the judge's mind, he has already turned the Dome into a show even when it is empty of fans and team. He anticipates a stream of tourists who will come to see the Dome itself. Boxholders will be able to entertain guests in the Dome's private clubs when no game is scheduled, and point out where they would sit if anything was going on. The Astrodome will be operating 365 days a year, and all the while the judge will be selling—the 45,000 seats for the team's ball games and one-minute spot ads between innings of baseball and quarters of football for an enormous TV screen set into the scoreboard. He must fill the Dome with other sporting events and with a variety of convention groups in order to pay the $750,000 annual rent to Harris County, which has leased the Dome to the Houston Sports Association for 40 years. Gulf Oil is the only advertiser now visible in the Dome, with two gigantic orange medallions on the $2 million scoreboard for which they paid $1 million. The judge claims that he could sell the space for twice the amount today.
In addition to its glitter, the stadium is also full of mechanical marvels. There is an ultraviolet-ray smoke detector for checking visibility. There is a weather station on the roof that feeds data to a computer that keeps the temperature a constant 72°. The diamond is lighted by 300 footcandles—no one has ever seen one lighted by even 200 before. When the Astros hit a homer the giant scoreboard lights up in a pyrotechnical display. Cowboys appear, bullets ricochet, a snorting bull comes out and it is generally the Battle of San Jacinto. If the opposition homers, the board actually says "Tilt."
The stadium roof is made of 4,596 Lucite skylights that enable the three and a half acres of Bermuda grass on the diamond to grow healthily indoors. Though many think the roof rolls back, it does not, since the point all along was to keep the weather out. There are also foam-rubber theater seats in a rainbow of colors, a plethora of restaurants and concession stands, two private clubs to satisfy status-seekers and help them evade the archaic Texas liquor laws, an army of theatrically costumed attendants, and a spectacular $3 million advance sale for the first season.
While Texas ladies shook out their summer furs or flew up to Dallas to pick up a little something new for the opening and while their easygoing, tall and tanned husbands fiddled with the air-conditioning switches in their limousines as they drawled over car telephones to New York brokers, the judge was working his usual 18-to-20-hour day to see to it that this week these blasé folks who have already seen, bought and heard everything get quite a bit more than they bargained for.
He is also determined that the common man of Harris County, whose bond issue built the Dome, should feel that he is being treated just as well as the kings of petroleum, gas and cattle in the upper tiers. "What we have here is a new concept in professional sport," says the judge. "Baseball is the great common denominator. So here we give the bleacher fan air-conditioned comfort for the same price he paid for an eight-inch board in the blazing sun or rain somewhere else."
In the bleachers there are excellent seats for $1.50 and, conceivably, a man can drive up, park (for 50¢), take a free advertiser-sponsored tram-train from car to Dome, walk up a slightly inclined ramp and see a fantastic show—for a grand total of $2. If he likes, he can also spend money among concessionaires who will never block his view or picnic among artificial trees in the field-level Bavarian-flavored Domeskeller. Here, amid plaster elves astride beer barrels, the viewer looks out onto the field through a wire mesh and eats hot dogs sans chiggers, ants, sunburn, sand or rain. What's more, there is the Countdown Cafeteria with its uniformed Blastoff Girls to serve you under anachronistic murals of Cretan bull dancers, stubby Trojan warriors and other ancient sportsmen. Full-course meals comparable to those in the private clubs above will be available in the Trailblazer restaurant, where the murals depict man's struggle for a better life and where the judge wants the customer to feel he has achieved it. Just watching the big rich on the topmost level ought to be a show in itself, for Hofheinz has done everything imaginable and a few things unimaginable to provide the trappings that will make Dome watching worthwhile.
The 18-story Shamrock Hilton Hotel could easily stand in the middle and not touch the sides or top. Beginning in bands of rust for the bleachers, seats rise in a color spectrum from burnt orange to red to black to purple to bright yellow to pale yellow to royal blue. These seats, with the map of Texas embossed on their aisle sides, would be impossible in any stadium subject to weather, and are so comfortable "they will reduce the length of the game by an hour," quips the judge. He claims he has little fear of vandalism, since research by the American Seating Co. "proves that it occurs in direct ratio to the hardness of the seat." Sixty-five percent of these upholstered dreams are behind the world's longest dugouts, because of a Hofheinz theory that everyone wants to leave the ball park bragging, "I sat behind the dugout."
With hundreds of details still to be worked out before the opening, the judge recently gave the last of his A-l guided tours. Most Houstonians were going slowly crazy trying for a preview peek at the Dome, and a sure way to one-up anybody at the Cork Club, Rudi's West or the Warwick Hotel was to say you had been inside. The judge had a strict embargo on visitors—he was saving up for this week's neat jam of ticket buyers in cars at his strategically fanned-out highway ticket booths, which connect back to the Dome via pneumatic underground tubes for quick change and exchange.
Seizing a moment for lunch, he hurried over to Mel's Pit Bar-B-Q, where he could avoid the fans who come up and hammer him with suggestions in public places, for the judge is a celebrity of note in Houston. There he washed down great amounts of hickory-smoked spareribs with mugs of cold Schlitz—one of his new accounts. Heads turned on the grand new roads, which all seem to be leading to the Dome, as the judge, wearing a short-sleeved white-on-white shirt with a row of gold pencils and tan cigars decorating the pocket, whizzed by at the wheel of his long black Cadillac. His tie bore the number 13 and a black cat, his money clip was a silver dollar and his gold watch contained, among other things, a slide rule. His black, slick, slightly graying hair, stubby brown teeth and heavy black horn-rims give the judge the look of an enormous owl. "I studied up on color psychology," he says, dialing a unique rheostat in his lower office bar that controls various hues designed to get people in the right mood for different things, "and I also studied crowd psychology. The stadium is designed for fast traffic. It can be cleared in nine minutes. We have everything figured out—no ice, no food has ever to be moved during a game and the seats are soundproofed, so it we're only partly full the echo is minimized. We spent $6 million decorating on top of the $31 million this cost the county. On the blue level, where our most expensive boxes are, we experimented for a week to determine what light looked best on ladies' makeup and clothes. Listen, every day here will be ladies' day."
Up on the blue level, with its special green carpet and fast elevators, one experiences a slight shock of wonder that these are considered the best seats, in view of their distance from the diamond. This heavenly circle was the judge's afterthought and a matter on which his architects disagreed. He put it in anyway and installed behind it 53 special rooms, each with its own closed-circuit TV, radio, Dow-Jones ticker, icemaker, refrigerator, bar and toilet. The rooms are decorated in a riot of astounding styles from western to southern to Oriental to heaven-knows-what, with much fake green ivy and other plastic plant life and scenic wallpaper panels (there are no windows). Despite the conflicts and contrasts, they create an overall impression of motel modern. The corporate executive pays annually either $18,000 for 30 seats in a box or $15,000 for 24 seats in a box, (each with its special room) for a minimum of five years. With this comes a butler to serve his guests drinks and canapés. Ladies can freshen up by taking only a step to the private room, and those faint from peering down at the miniature game below can lie down and watch it on TV. There are two 54-seat boxes with private rooms for sale at $33,000.
The judge is still guarding the secret of who bought what as closely as if it were the formula for Coca-Cola syrup—causing some to think that perhaps not many of them are signed for. But many companies and individuals have purchased these showcases, including August Busch, the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, Astronaut Alan Shepard and his business associate, Bill McDavid, the Bank of the Southwest, the Houston Bank and Trust, the Cameron Iron Works, the Houston Chronicle, the Tennessee Gas Company, the Houston National Bank, the Bay Houston Towing Company and others of this ilk. The judge claims 27 sold for sure and 21 more of the 53 spoken for.
These box-and room-holders have one extra cachet—entrance to the exclusive-to-them Skydome Restaurant, with its black diorama of a moving universe, Japanese-style food prepared at the tables and a 210-foot glass-walled view of Houston's skyline. Each Skybox owner has his own specially engraved gold spatula, for serving from the gourmet tray.
There is little reason to suspect that the dazzling opening, followed by the exhibition games and then the beginning of the regular season on April 12 (Astros vs. the Phillies), will not sell everything in sight, for Houston is a town drowning in money. Thinking up "fun" things for business entertainment is a leading local pastime.
Still, Houston's young smart set, which goes in heavily for modern art and tasteful, small private homes walled off from the street, or life in the popular new high-rise apartments, is looking just a bit down its nose at the stadium. Some call it the doomed stadium, and most claim to have been asked to go in on the blue boxes, which all feel are too expensive for private ownership. This group boasts more football than baseball fans, and many will wait until the stadium converts for the Houston Oilers' pro football season. Knowledgeable types already think that the better seats are in the yellow and red circles closer to the field and near enough for convenience to the other private restaurant, which they can join for a small fee. This is the 550-foot-long Astrodome Club. It has a turn-of-the-century decor, pseudo-Lautrec murals (one depicts the judge studying La Goulue), a bar bearing mottos such as "All That Glitters Is Not Gold" and a partially gold floor. Here the meat-carving chef will wear over his white uniform snap-on sleeves of velvet with ermine tails.
Houston's hotels and motels are already overbooked this week. Lawrence Marcus, who will soon move to Houston from Dallas to establish an opulent larger version of his family's famed store, Neiman-Marcus, is flying down for the opening. U.S. Rubber President H. N. Barnett is due from Akron, and Hotel Corporation of America Board Chairman John Bergen is expected, along with 275 newsmen. Many who could well afford the blue tier have bought in the red seats, among them Texaco scion J. S. Cullinan II, who once owned the Houston ball club himself, and rich young Tommy Mercer of Fort Worth (he is co-owner with Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs), who will fly down in his private plane with his wife, Jo, and their seven children. The John Becks (she is the niece of the late Jesse Jones) felt that the blue level was too high up and settled for the red. These are avid sports fans who really want to see the ball game. They also include the Europe-bound Michel Halboutys, who took two boxes back of first base which they are lending to their daughter, Mrs. Thomas E. Kelly. The Theodore Laws (she is the daughter of the founder of Humble Oil) are going strictly to see the game, say they wouldn't think of dressing formally for a ball game and don't plan to party before or after.
Socialites such as W. D. and Frances Hayden are taking members of their family to share their blue box, and Mrs. Hayden, who bought a new green suit for the opening, says, "Oh, we might go to the Warwick afterward." They will eschew the exclusive stadium cafés because "we would rather have hot dogs, beer and peanuts—that's half the fun of going to a ball game."
Meantime, the Rev. Billy Graham has already placed his stamp of approval on the Dome. He will hold a revival there Oct. 8-17 and is featured in Dome ads as saying, "This is in truth one of the great wonders of the world." The judge is already making plans to replace the hard-won stadium grass with a synthetic in order to make the switch from baseball to football easier and quicker. The turf must be moved in some sections and the red seats turned on tracks to make a football field. Then sod has to be replaced when the baseball diamond is reformed. Although the Dome was engineered so that grass could grow, and that was its most difficult problem, the judge already considers the achievement obsolete.
The judge also has in mind a spectacular production of the opera Aida with the Houston and Dallas symphonies playing while a cast of 10,000 performs with live elephants. Hofheinz figures there are 85 enormous world organizations with no place to meet properly but his Dome. He also has an eye on 1968, when two national political conventions lured, he hopes, by less stringent Texas liquor laws (hopefully, the curfew will be extended from midnight to 2 a.m.) will come to stage their own favorite indoor sport in Houston.