THE GREATEST SHOWMAN ON EARTH, AND HE'S THE FIRST TO ADMIT IT

April 21, 1969

If Roy Mark Hofheinz operated anywhere but in the state of Texas, he would stick out like a sore thumb. In Texas he sticks out like a sore pinkie. Even so, he is without doubt the most inventive, imaginative and successful entrepreneur in the world, and he is the first to admit it.

Hofheinz is best known as the owner of the Astrodome, which he isn't. He has the use of it for a lot less than it would cost him to own it. When he was a kid he didn't have enough money to go to the circus. He now owns a half interest in Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey. He always wanted to be a baseball player, but he was handicapped by three shortcomings. "I couldn't run, hit or throw," he says. He now owns the Houston Astros, which don't do much better.

Hofheinz also owns four hotels and Astroworld, which is modeled after Disneyland and features an artificial mountain named Der Hofheinzberg. In the near future he will own five more hotels, a bigger and better Astroworld and, hopefully, an NHL club. Hofheinz's empire, or Astrodomain, is built on a swamp on the outskirts of Houston, which, not many years ago, was graced only by a straggling mesquite tree. This grew on what is now the 50-yard line of the Astrodome, which rises out of the south Texas prairie much as Hofheinz's belly swells from his body.

It is not true, as some Houstonians would have you believe, that Hofheinz asked the architects of the Astrodome to model it on the general outline of his majestic abdomen, although it has been estimated that the costs of building the Dome and Hofheinz's belly are not too far apart. It is a fact, however, that Hofheinz's waistline matches his age, which is 57. Hofheinz says he eats "anything that won't bite me back," and his poison is diet Dr Pepper and Jack Daniel's, which somehow lulls him into the belief that he is dieting.

Indeed, cost may preclude the construction of any more enclosed stadiums, if not ample stomachs. The Judge, as Hofheinz is known in Houston, believes that the Astrodome may be the first and last of its kind, like the Crystal Palace. "This one," he says, "was built for $31 million. Costs have gone up since then. I don't think you could duplicate it for $80 million and no structure costing $80 million is economically feasible. You hear about people in Montreal and Milwaukee and New Orleans who say they are going to build something like the Astrodome, but when they get the figures they change their minds."

Indeed they do. And if the Judge had had to foot the bill for the Astrodome, it is doubtful that it would have been built, either. The Astrodome was built by the taxpayers of Harris County, who, 25 years before, had elected Hofheinz county judge at the tender age of 24 and, later, mayor of Houston. To his credit, Hofheinz retired from the bench with only $18 in his pocket. At the time he had far more enemies than dollars, and that situation has changed only because he now has $20 million dollars.

Not long ago, sitting in his office on the 7½ level of the Astrodome, Hofheinz looked back on his climb up. "I was the youngest man ever elected to be judge," he said. He was smoking a cigar that has often been described as being a foot long but actually measures seven inches. His brand is Sans Souci ("Whatever that means in French") Perfectos, and he goes through a box of 25 a day. "Don't say 'smoke,' " he says. " 'Consume' is the word. I chew a lot of them and give some away. When you are a young man on the way up," he continued, "everyone wants to give you a hand. 'He's a promising young man with a future,' they say, happy because you're poor and beneath them. Once you make it, they change their attitude. When you get old and rich the same ones who wanted to help say, 'He's a snobbish old son of a bitch.' I've been on both sides of the fence and I guess it doesn't make much difference. I'm no different now than I was then."

Of course, he is different. When he was a young politician he was rather more of an idealist and, as one result, he is well-regarded by the Negro population of Houston.

As county judge he integrated the Harris County golf courses and buses. "It was ridiculous," he says. "Negroes paid taxes for the golf courses and couldn't play on them. I did it without saying I was going to and we had no trouble." As mayor he had COLORED and WHITE painted out on the City Hall rest room signs and no one noticed it for months. He integrated the public libraries without fanfare, too, calling in the white and black press and asking them not to print it. The libraries had been integrated for some time before there was any protest. Then a white, socially prominent female paid Hofheinz a visit.

"I won't let my children sit by black children in the library," she said. "I don't know what they would catch!"

"Maybe tolerance," said the Judge.

In 1961 Hofheinz bought the Houston Buffs, a minor league baseball team, and the first thing he did was to have all the COLORED and WHITE signs taken down. "At that time, no Negroes were allowed in the grandstands," he says. "I called in the newspapers and told them the same thing I had as mayor—no publicity. We'll do it without any fanfare. My policy then and now is an all-green policy. If you've got the green you can buy a seat wherever you want to sit, whether you're white, black or polka-dotted. Only two season tickets were canceled. There were no phone calls, no protests, because no one knew what was happening."

Hofheinz's all-green philosophy is a consequence of a no-green youth. When he was 15 his father was killed in an accident while driving a laundry truck. To support his mother, Hofheinz sold papers and booked dance bands and got his law degree at 19.

Hofheinz's youthful idealism extended beyond racial matters. One of his first acts as mayor was to fire the city treasurer, who had thoughtfully moved some buildings from city-purchased land to his own at city expense. To fill the job, Hofheinz called in an old friend, Bill Sherrill.

"Sherrill," he said, "I want you to be the city treasurer."

"I don't know anything about that," Sherrill said. "How can I be treasurer?"

"You're honest," Hofheinz said. "You can learn the rest."

"I'll have to think about that for a while," Sherrill told him. "How soon do you have to have my answer?"

"In 30 minutes," Hofheinz told him.

"I called my wife," Sherrill recalls. "When I told her what he wanted me to do, she began to cry. But I was the city treasurer."

Against the wishes of his councilmen, Hofheinz initiated a vast building program for Houston, which led to the council trying to impeach him. Hofheinz issued a bench warrant for the arrest of councilmen who refused to attend a meeting he had called; in reprisal the councilmen locked him out of City Hall while they drew up the indictment.

"That," said Hofheinz, "was like the penitentiary inmates trying to oust the warden."

When, in 1954, he ran for a second term as mayor, the machine was out to defeat him, but Hofheinz enlisted the support of Bob Smith, a silver-haired, superconservative Texan who is worth about $200 million. Hofheinz beat the machine and was elected, but he had incurred the enmity of too many Houston politicians, and when the Houston newspapers deserted him in 1955 on account of "childish behavior," he was ousted in a special election.

"I won't get into politics again until I've made a million dollars," Hofheinz said when he retired as a judge in 1944, and in the next eight years, in oil, radio stations and slag, he made more than that. When he was ousted as mayor he was still a millionaire, but his biggest asset was his friendship with Smith. In 1960 Houston wanted a major league baseball club. Smith wanted Houston to have one and he formed the Houston Sports Association to get it.

"They asked me to come in finally," says Hofheinz, "but I went in on the understanding that I would run the show. They could be on the surface running press meetings and talking to the public and I would be in the basement making deals. I decided that the only way to sell Houston as a major league city was to come up with a stadium that would lure the baseball people."

The idea for the Astrodome professedly came to Hofheinz when he and his first wife, Irene, who died 2½ years ago, were in Rome on a visit. "Mama and I were standing there looking at the Colosseum," he says. "It was a large, round facility and most of the stadiums in the United States had been built to conform to the shape of the playing fields. Rectangular. I studied the history of the Colosseum and I found out that on hot days they used to have the slaves pull a cover over the top made out of papyrus or whatever they used in those days. I guess they didn't want to spoil the lions' appetite with too much heat. And I found out, too, that the emperor and the bigwigs all sat at the top of the stadium. Standing there, thinking back on those days, I figured that a round facility with a cover was what we needed in the United States and that Houston would be the perfect spot for it."

Hofheinz and Smith bought 497 acres of swampland from the owners of the Shamrock Hilton Hotel and sold 254 acres to Harris County for the site of the Astrodome. The Dome itself was built on two bond issues, one for $22 million, another for $9 million. The wealthy Houstonians were for it—an enclosed stadium would bring in more wealth. But it was felt that the poorer Houstonians wouldn't back the plan.

"The voting on the bond issue brought together the silk-stocking voters and the colored people for the first time," says Hofheinz. "The black people have a long memory." Indeed, they heavily supported the bond issue.

Hofheinz and Smith were left with a nice piece of property, which skyrocketed in value. The State Highway Department speeded construction on Route 90, which passed by the site, and the land became even more valuable. The National League gave Houston a franchise and the land became more valuable still.

But Smith and Hofheinz broke up. The Judge is a man who prefers to do things his own way and right away. He doesn't confer, even with someone as powerful as Smith. "Bob is a conservative man," Hofheinz explains. "I had to do things without telling him and then confront him with them. Like the scoreboard, for instance. I decided to have that built—it cost a couple of million—but I knew if I went to him for approval he would take forever to make up his mind. So I had it done and then told him about it. He said it would never work and we wouldn't get our money out of it. I put in the high-level boxes and suites without telling him. All these things led to the breakup."

When Smith had his fill of Hofheinz's high-handed methods, he made what he must have thought was an impossible demand on the Judge. At this time Hofheinz and Smith were joint-owners of 98% of the Houston Sports Association, lessee of the Astrodome (at $750,000 per annum) and owner of the Houston Astros.

"Buy me out for $7.5 million," said Smith. "Or I'll buy you out."

Much to Smith's surprise, Hofheinz got up the $7.5 million. The flabbergasted Smith had second thoughts so the Judge let him have 10% outright. Said Smith, "Roy has no friendly relationships. He's an autocrat."

"Old Bob was just upset, I guess," the Judge allows. "Hell, we still own some things together."

Among Hofheinz's tenants is Bud Adams, who owns the Houston Oilers, although when he first applied for a lease Hofheinz, then hopeful of getting an NFL franchise for himself, demanded exorbitant rent. Hofheinz is fond of quoting Evangelist Billy Graham to the effect that the Dome is the Eighth Wonder of the World. Adams, after hearing the Judge's terms, said, "If the Astrodome is the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Judge's price for a lease is the ninth."

When the NFL made it clear that it didn't welcome baseball owners, Adams found the terms for the Astrodome more in line. Not that the Judge is that excited about professional football as a tenant. "Pro football is spoiled," he says. "I don't know of a single case where a pro football club owns its own facilities and almost none is the prime tenant in a stadium. It's a great piggyback sport and it's appropriate that it's played with a pigskin. But if anything ever happened to baseball, pro football couldn't generate the income to keep the parks open. Hell, if I took all of Bud Adams' pro football income, I couldn't pay the operating expenses here."

Since, according to the Judge, the Astrodome's operating expenses run to some $4 million per year, it takes more than the Oilers and the Astros to make the nut. "If I depended on baseball alone," Hofheinz says, "it would take an attendance of a million and a half, a million six, to break even. Practically every other club in major league baseball can break even on 800,000 or 900,000. But here the whole process is a regenerative one. With no baseball there would be no stadium and without the stadium there would be no Astrohall [a 12,000-seat arena next to the Dome] and no Astroworld. Without the Astroworld there would be nothing for kids in the complex. Without the hotels we'd have no room for the families who come here with their kids for their vacations and go to see the baseball games. I don't see this as a contest between pro football and baseball. There must be a continuity of sports across the board, not a contest for the public dollar. There's plenty of room for all sports."

Hofheinz owns the Houston Apollos, a minor league hockey team, and owned a soccer team until the league folded. Although almost every kind of act has played the Dome, Hofheinz is still rankled by the fact that he couldn't persuade the Democrats and Republicans to hold their conventions there. He even had a special Presidential Suite built into the structure, complete with a hot line to the White House, hoping that Lyndon Johnson would occupy it. Johnson is a longtime friend, Hofheinz having run two of his senatorial campaigns, one in 1941 when Johnson lost, and the second in 1948 when he won.

"We get along fine," the Judge says. "But he was the first to know that the Democrats lost the election because he decided for political reasons to hold the convention in Chicago instead of here. You know what happened in Chicago. He made a political judgment because he was worried about the Middle West. And he didn't think we could fill the Astrodome. Hell, we filled it for a rally for Hubert Humphrey and Humphrey carried Texas because of it."

It is Hofheinz's ambition to make out of his Astrodomain an entertainment complex so complete that a family can move into one of his hotels and spend a month without leaving the grounds and have something exciting to do every day. To that end, he purchased his half interest in the circus two years ago and he plans to put it in the Astrohall for three months every summer.

"When I was a kid the circus was the only free show in town," he says. "The circus parade, I mean. I could go down to the midway and wander around looking at the sideshows from the outside, too. I remember when I started working and made enough money to take my mother out, the place I took her was the circus."

Hofheinz didn't buy the circus out of sentiment, although he has long been a circus buff and much of the decoration in the Astrodome, his hotels and his former home in Houston has a circus motif. There is even a mural at the latter depicting the Hofheinz family on the flying trapeze.

The Judge closed the deal for the circus in typically flamboyant style. John Ringling North lives in Rome and Hofheinz and the Feld brothers, who bought the other 50%, flew there in secrecy, taking along a photographer who had no idea why he was going to Italy. Upon their arrival, the Judge rented a lion cub for $80 an hour, then repaired to the Colosseum, where North awaited him.

The transfer of the circus took place there, with only one small contretemps to mar the proceedings. When it came time for the actual signing, a couple of the Judge's aides tried to move a large, flat building stone into a more convenient position, only to be stopped by indignant guards. It seems it had been laid some 2,000 years before by Vespasian.

More recently, Hofheinz was thwarted when he blustered that he would take legal action to nullify Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's decision in the Donn Clendenon-Jesus Alou-Rusty Staub trade, in which the Astros' Staub went to Montreal for Alou and Clendenon. When Clendenon announced he was retiring from baseball (he subsequently changed his mind), Hofheinz said the deal was off; Kuhn ruled otherwise, adding that Houston would be compensated for Clendenon. Blurted Hofheinz, who called the commissioner Blewie Kuhn because he contended he "blew one": "In less than six weeks Kuhn has done more to destroy baseball than all its enemies in 100 years." Five days later Hofheinz apologized in a statement worthy of Mr. Micawber: "It was neither my intention nor my desire to affront the commissioner. I did not intend to challenge your personal integrity and honesty, or to impugn your motives. If any contrary inference were possible, you have my apologies. In short, I only disagreed with your decision."

One of Hofheinz's assets as an entrepreneur is his ability to project profits in endeavors others consider too risky. The huge, gaudy and greatly maligned Astrodome scoreboard is a good example. The Judge feels that no one really objects to the length of baseball games. "Maybe the sportswriters," he concedes. "When they're on the road they want to get through and get out on the town while the bars are still open, so they're conscious of how long a game takes. But the average fan, he couldn't care less, especially if he's comfortable. And we make sure he's comfortable in the Astrodome. He has an upholstered seat, he has good hot dogs at a reasonable price or a good restaurant to eat in and he has the scoreboard to entertain him between plays. I never yet heard one complain about how long a game lasted. He's being entertained in air-conditioned comfort, and if the game goes into extra innings he's getting that much more for his dollar and getting something to talk about the next day, too."

The scoreboard is paying off its $2 million cost in a hurry. The Gulf Oil Corporation forked over $1 million for the right to display a pair of gigantic shields and individual advertisers buy time for electronic messages for $18,000 a year.

Hofheinz treasures the criticism that the irreverent scoreboard cartoons and messages engender. "The more publicity it gets, good, bad or indifferent," he says, "the more people are aware of it and the bigger drawing card it is."

The Dome itself draws customers. The feeling is that a sports event in the Dome draws 10% to 20% more fans than it would in any other stadium simply because most tourists want to say they've been in the Dome. Last year 493,296 people paid a buck a head to tour the Dome when nothing was going on.

"I figure at most events 50% come for the stadium and 50% for the sport," Hofheinz says. "When people come here for a vacation or for a convention, the one thing they have to see is the Astrodome. That's what their neighbors are going to ask them about when they get home."

The Judge concerns himself with the gustatory welfare of his customers, too. His contract with his concessionaires can be canceled on short notice, in case the hot dogs should come up wrinkled or the hamburgers too greasy. From his office aerie Hofheinz keeps an eagle eye on the vendors. "If I see one sitting down watching the game," he says, "or if I see a section with no vendors I call down and raise hell."

Hofheinz has, of course, experimented with any number of sports. "If you have this kind of hall, you would be dead with only baseball dates," he points out. "We have baseball 85 days a year, 10 days of pro football and six or seven days of college football. The rodeo lasts 15 days. Auto races run two days, motorcycles two, basketball two. Then we have fights, bullfights, polo, track. Last year we had about 130 dates in the Astrodome and four million people paid their way in to see the events, and that doesn't include the political rally for Humphrey or the daily tours."

The Astrodome grossed a reported $15 million in 1967, but there is lots more to be made. The Judge would like to put his Apollos in the Dome, with an eye to getting an NHL club. "Houston isn't a minor league city," he says.

Hofheinz has also scheduled four games between predominantly Negro colleges for the coming season. "Last year Grambling played Texas Southern in the Astrodome the same night Rice played Texas Tech at Rice Stadium," he says. "We had 35,465 people. Rice announced 20,000 but I hear they really had only 12,000. The crowd at the Grambling-TSU game ate more per capita than any crowd we ever had, and they were the cleanest. I'd like to get the Negro national championship game."

All the attractions in the Astrodome contribute to the success of Astroworld. "It's the only major amusement park in the world put up by one family, with no stock promotion, no other person's money, no government ownership," says Hofheinz. It cost $18 million and has some attractions Disneyland doesn't, such as outdoor air conditioning. Gentle puffs of cooled air issue from vents located on the poles supporting the sunshades in the outdoor restaurants.

The Judge wants to expand Astroworld from its 57 acres to 116 and include industrial and international exhibits. He would also like to enlarge the hotel complex to a 1,500-room, 6,000-guest facility and build two theaters, one for films, one for plays. "Many people resist change, are afraid to move," he says. "You have to grow. Take baseball, for instance. You've got to understand why most baseball owners resist change. The clubs are owned by people not in day-to-day contact with the hour-to-hour operation. The owners, for the most part, are successful in another business but they know little about baseball and depend for advice on recommendations from the ranks. And the philosophy in the ranks goes right back to Tinker to Evers to Chance. No one ever gets fired in baseball and none of the oldtimers in the ranks is cognizant of the economics involved in making the game tick. You can see the curve of expenses going straight up, the curve of per capita ticket costs staying the same and it doesn't mean anything to them. You've got to do one of two things. Get more customers or more money per ticket, and if you get more money per ticket you price yourself out of the market."

As he talked, the Judge sipped coffee, ignoring the blatting of motorcycles tuning up for a race 7½ stories below.

"We've been innovators," he said. "In the field, in the scoreboard, in a facility that can be converted from one sport to another quickly. You might say we made an all-purpose dishwasher so that you can wash all the sports dishes in one place."

On April 10, his birthday, Hofheinz married his 40-year-old secretary, Mary Frances Gougenheim. They had a one-day honeymoon in the Astroworld Hotel before moving into the Judge's suite in the Dome, which is equipped with a bowling alley, a shooting range, a barbershop and a bar with stools that can be raised or lowered by remote control, for comic effect. There is even an interfaith chapel with a small window in which the religious symbols of the five major religions can be changed by pushing a button.

"I like to fish and hunt, but I don't have time anymore," the Judge said, lighting a Sans Souci. "I got a hunting camp I never go to. I want to get all of this finished by 1975. I don't expect to die by then, but your energies taper off. This isn't an eight-hour-a-day business. Whatever fires you got to put out, you got to have the hoseman to get there in a hurry. So I have to get it done while I still have the drive."

The Judge has three children, but none is active in the business, although all share ownership of Astroworld with him as well as 50% of the whole complex. Roy Jr. is a professor of East Asian studies at Harvard; Fred, another son, is in the land-development business; and Hofheinz's son-in-law Scott Mann has started a computer software company.

"We're putting in our own computer system for baseball," the Judge said, watching the motorcyclists circling the dirt track far below. "You have to keep up. You got to keep moving."

PHOTODIANE ARBUS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)