Greetings From the Eighth Wonder of the World
Happy birthday, dear Astrodome, happy birthday to you.
The county commissioner was positively indignant at the way everybody, particularly the news media, kept calling the new county facility by the wrong name. “The county built it and the county paid for it,” he loudly complained to a packed hearing room, “and, dammit, the county owns it!” Growing purplish, the commissioner blustered that “People by God ought to start calling it by its right name: The Harris County Domed Stadium!!”
“Well,” soothed the agreeable Judge, “you can call it whatever you wanta call it.” With the temperate grace of a statesman he smiled amicably, puffed his cigar and added, “But the World is gonna know it as the Astrodome.”
It rises alarmingly out of the flatlands, this enormous implausible igloo, like a misplaced Atlantis. One can easily imagine Billy Graham calling it, as he is said to have called it, “The Eight Wonder of the World,” thus putting it in the same league with the Babylonian Gardens and the Colossus of Rhodes.
What Reverend Billy really said, quoting exactly here, is: “It is in truth one of the wonders of the world”—a description clearly lacking that certain, shall we say, flair. Only after smelting in Judge Hofheinz’ solar imagination did the phrase come to resemble its current, much more compelling self. The Reverend Billy has never once cried foul at this modest revision. Perhaps because his ten-day draw during a 1966 Crusade still holds the attendance record for the Eighth Wonder of the World. He did remark, however, that most Houstonians will likely retire to hell.
In view of the company it keeps—those Gardens, the Colossus and the Pyramids, the Tomb of Mausolus—it seems a little surprising that the Astrodome has only been with us ten years. But that’s indeed the case: the official debut was April 9, 1965, making it a mere upstart as a World Wonder.
In just those ten years, though, the Dome, as the Astrodome is more affectionately known, has had quite a run. It holds the indoor live-gate records for just about every sort of event or affair you’d care to hold indoors, as well as several you probably wouldn’t, and has spawned a whole empire of Astrocolonies—Astroworld, Astrohall, four Astrohotels, the Astros themselves (allegedly a baseball team), and the soon-to-be completed Astroarena. It’s also been U.S. government certified (by the Commerce Department’s Travel Service) as the nation’s third-ranking man-made tourist attraction, just behind the Statue of Liberty and considerably out front of Mount Rushmore and Hoover Dam.
Amidst all the back-patting and record-breaking, it’s been easy to forget that the Dome’s humble raison d’etre is simply to be a stadium, and that it performs that role magnificently. There is, in droll reality, no stadium on the globe that so caters to its patrons, or that offers so varied (not to say bizarre) a selection of spectacles.
Houstonians—or Texans generally, for that matter—have grown quite complacent about the Dome, almost indifferent or, in many cases, actively embarrassed. This also is a mistake, for Astroconsciousness forms far too bulky a portion, good or otherwise, of our cultural baggage to be denied or disregarded. Subtly yet unavoidably, the Astrodome colors one’s perception of Texas and Texans, even our self-perceptions, and it’s long since assumed a place in the gallery of institutions that mark our heritage.
It may be irony, for instance, but it was certainly no accident that the Dome opened on Roy Hofheinz’ birthday, that John Connally threw out the first ball with Lyndon Johnson ensconced in the Presidential Suite, and that the South’s first major-league baseball franchise whipped the New York Yankees that day two-to-one.
“It’s the kind of place a pitcher dreams about going when he dies.” Satchel Paige, Hall of Fame pitcher
The world’s indoor boxing attendance record of 35,460 was set in the Dome on November 14, 1967, when Muhammed Ali decisioned Ernie Terrell in fifteen rounds.
There are 30 seats for blind baseball fans on the mezzanine level, with a radio outlet permitting them to listen to the Astros Radio Network.
“Welcome to the Astrodome,” greets the pert, pretty tourguide. “You are now seated in the world’s largest room.” She pauses for the weight of that statement to sink in, while visitors stare numbly into the cavern looming before them, then at the spurious roof above them.
“How many of you are from Houston?” she asks, and two or three hands go up from the 40-odd available pairs. “How many Texans?” garners a similar showing. For every one of the ten years the Dome has been here, over 400,000 curious pilgrims, most of them outlanders, have paid a dollar each just to see the place. Among other things—many other things—they learn such essential information as:
· The 642-foot clear-span plastic dome is the largest ever built, bridges a gap five times the diameter of Rome’s Pantheon, and could easily accommodate an eighteen-story hotel with room left over for Madison Square Garden.
· There are 45,054 deep-cushion foam “first-class” theater-style chairs, all put in place at a cost of $1 million in “the largest single public seating installation in history.”
· Seats can be added or shuffled to suit the event, yielding 45,000 for baseball, 52,000 for football, 60,000 for boxing, and so forth, a transformation the ground crew can fashion in three hours.
· The Dome is air-conditioned at a constant 72 degrees by four mammoth refrigeration units supplying “approximately the amount of cooling given off by daily melting of enough ice to cover a football field to a depth of nearly five feet.” The air is also filtered to remove haze and smoke as determined by the ultraviolet-ray visibility detector.
· “The most modern sound system ever created for a public building” assures “stereo quality” in a Dome that was acoustically deadened with absorbent fiberboard, acoustical plastic, and 1078 miniscule perforations on the bottom of each seat.
· There are five successive seating tiers in “vivid, zippy colors”—burnt orange, lipstick red, royal blue—that not only “add an exciting air of festivity” but were chroma-keyed to look good on television without clashing with feminine make-up.
· “Paved parking areas surrounding the Astrodome provide parking space for more than 30,000 cars, which is more parking area than any sports stadium now in operation or on the drawing boards.”
Nobody mentions that it costs to get into one of those parking spaces.
Ernie Banks, epic shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, after his first game in the Dome: “Is this still the eighth wonder of the world?”
An Astro, glumly: “Yep.”
Banks: “I thought it might’ve moved up.”
John O’Connell had been working late in the Astrodome offices; it was his job to hustle conventions for the Astro-empire, and he was having trouble attracting one especially prestigious gathering. Despondently leaving the office, he came across Judge Hofheinz in the parking lot.
“You’re working late,” said the Judge. “Are you worried about something?”
O’Connell told him about the problems with the prospective convention, saying the biggest obstacle was Houston’s shortage of hotel rooms.
“How many more do you need?” asked the Judge.
“At least a thousand,” replied O’Connell.
“Tell them we’ll build a thousand across the street,” answered the Judge.
It took 1,500 more tons of steel to build the Astrodome than the Eiffel Tower (where, you should know, it costs $2 to get a hamburger, as opposed to the Dome’s modest 65 cents).
Evel Knievel set the world’s indoor motorcycle jump record in the Dome, where it was later beaten by, successively, a fifteen-year-old boy and a woman.
Construction of the Astrodome began in the year A.D. 71, when Roman Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasian got it into his head he wanted the world’s greatest stadium. His 12,000 slaves took ten years to build it, for which apparent sloth Vespasian responded with the famous Hundred Days Games, a lop-sided contest between his erstwhile workmen and an assortment of large, angry beasts.
Two centuries after this gala inaugural, a Christian monk named Telemachus flung himself into the pits to protest the violence being carried on therein; he was roundly booed, promptly thumbed down, and sent to the showers. His profitless intercession, however, was a sure indication that Roman social mores were losing their edge (see Gibbon, Decline and Fall), and the Flavian Colosseum embarked on an irreversible decline in gate receipts.
By the time a Houston tourist named Roy Hofheinz appeared on the scene, the old stadium was little more than a rubble-strewn shell of its former self, with a bit of a boneyard. Hofheinz liked the feel of it, though, and admired the way Vespasian even thought of adding a roof—a huge awning, or velarium, made of papyrus and drug over by the second-string slaves—to guard against rain-outs. Being a man who knows genuine extravagance when he sees it, Hofheinz was mightily impressed. “I figured that a round facility with a cover was what we needed in the United States,” he patriotically declared, “and Houston would be the perfect spot for it.”
Hofheinz returned home in time to rig up a model for the National League owners meeting in October 1960 where two expansion franchises were being awarded. The team owners had some reservations regarding indoor baseball but, as Sports Illustrated noted, “Once Hofheinz began to talk, the National League didn’t have a chance.” The new franchises went to New York, where they became the Mets, and to Houston, where they became, temporarily, the Colt .45s, and later the Astros. It was the first major league franchise ever awarded a Southern city.
Efforts to secure a Houston franchise had been underway for several years, most notable those of George Kirksey, a public relations executive, and Craig Cullinan, Jr., businessman grandson of Texaco’s founder, both of them flat-out, all-weather baseball fans. During the 1950s the two men tried to buy just about every team in professional baseball—always without success. When plans were announced in 1959 to create the Continental League, they formed the Houston Sports Association (HSA) as the vehicle for building a team. The new league, however, was quickly aborted by the American and National Leagues’ decisions to expand themselves, thus leaving Kirksey and Cullinan once again, as it were, out of their league. They turned for help to Roy Hofheinz and his partner, R.E. “Bob” Smith.
A Croesus even by Texas oilman standards, Bob Smith’s net worth was reckoned (by Fortune magazine) at $500 million, and he was Harris County’s largest landowner. By happy coincidence, his holdings included a 122-acre tract hard by the intersection of South Main and Old Spanish Trail, containing one not very promising oil well and one mesquite tree. It seemed the ideal place to resurrect Vespasian’s stadium.
The two new partners soon owned 66 per cent of the reorganized Houston Sports Association (Kirksey, Cullinan, and a few others became minority shareholders) and Hofheinz stormed County Commissioners Court with the same irresistible exuberance that overwhelmed the National League. Almost predictably, the outcome was similar: the court voted out a general obligation bond bill of $18 million for construction of a domed stadium, to be leased to the HSA for 40 years (with a 20-year option) at $750,000 annually.
In rapid succession Hofheinz also: defeated a lawsuit challenging the county’s wisdom in entering the baseball business; convinced the Texas Highway Department that a fourteen-lane highway conveniently bordering the stadium site should be rushed to completion five years ahead of schedule; ran a successful campaign to win voter approval of the bond issue; wheedled $750,000 out of the federal government to equip the Dome as a fallout shelter; paused for a deep breath; supervised construction of a $2-million temporary stadium; went back to the county commissioners for another $9.6-million bond issue to underwrite mushrooming visions; peddled television and radio rights; put together 600 more acres of land; dominated absolutely every phase of the Dome’s design process; sold the voters the second bond issue; and bought out his partner, Bob Smith, who didn’t like Hofheinz doing all those things without telling anybody.
Ground-breaking ceremonies took place January 3, 1962; then for over a year the enterprise was beset with drainage problems and advanced scarcely beyond broken ground. There was just this gaping, water-filled Astrocenter causing no end of consternation in Houston. After construction actually got started, though, it progressed relentlessly through two uneventful years at an ultimate cost of $45 million; most of the override was charged to the HSA for their own frills and extra, of which there were naturally quite a lot. When finally confronted with the imposing reality of a Dome-accompli, Houstonians generally applauded, engineers marveled, architects cringed, and stand-up comics had their juiciest windfall since Liz Taylor’s courtship.
Amazingly, the Dome had only one relatively minor defect: it wasn’t very useful for playing baseball. It seemed that sunlight splintering through the prismatic clear-span dome caused pop flies to disappear somewhere around the lipstick-red third tier, only to emerge due course, plummeting terrifically from the Astrosphere. Outfielders took to wearing batting helmets and chest protectors, pastel baseballs were introduced, and umpires worriedly consulted the rulebook for games canceled on account of daylight. The simplest solution—painting over the dome—was desperately discouraged because it would complicate the already dubious struggle to grow grass indoors; and grass, it must be remembered, was still believed an essential ingredient of baseball in those primitive, pastoral times.
The Astrodome’s premiere consequently saw the Yankees play the Astros at night. An injured Mickey Mantle, who’d planned on sitting the game out til he heard the President was coming, gained the uncertain honor of hitting the Dome’s maiden home run. The Astrodome scoreboard recognized the occasion and, in a sense, celebrated its own debut with the garish yet gloriously apt, 30-foot-high neon pronouncement: TILT.
“If the Astrodome is the Eighth Wonder of the World, then the Judge’s price for a lease is the Ninth.” Bud Adams, owner of the Houston Oilers
The world’s largest indoor crowd for a music festival turned out for the 1974 Astrodome Jazz Festival.
The steel door in center field is the largest in the South.
The world’s largest tennis crowd, indoor or out, watched Billie Jean King manhandle Bobby Riggs on September 20, 1973.
It stands to reason that the Judge wouldn’t have just an ordinary scoreboard in the Dome. What they have instead, in their own words, is “An electronic marvel, costing $2 million, giving patrons of the Astrodome more information, faster, than any visual display ever before seen on any athletic field. Easily the world’s largest, it stretches 474 feet across the center field wall…and measures more than four stories high.”
Put simply, it’s one helluva scoreboard. Put otherwise, it’s perhaps the most impressive and surely the most frightening contrivance in all Astroland.
Besides displaying a prodigious volume of the usual sports data—scores, downs, balls, strikes, yards, etc.—the scoreboard has two additional features. One is the “home run spectacular,” an electric collection of snorting bulls, shooting stars, spangles banners, and rockets aglare that Ella Fitzgerald described with dead accuracy as “a television gone wild.” Designed for use (together with its accompanying megadecibel “stereo quality” soundtrack) whenever the home team does something profitable, the “spectacular” explodes into a 45-second Astroorgasm that brings the entire stadium to a complete and utter halt. Its rather forbidding presence may help to explain the habitually arid fortunes of the Dome’s home teams.
The other and far more ominous scoreboard feature is the Astrolite, an enormous TV-style light screen that looms out over center field, staring directly into each and every deep-cushion foam seat and serving as a kind of Big Brother cum cheerleader. With a seemingly endless repertoire of animated light pictures, story-board cartoons, or often simple one-word commands, the Astrolite orchestrates partisan crowd response to action on the field. Should an opponent’s base runner reach second base the screen shouts WHOA! in 30-foot letters; if an Astro somehow achieves the same perch, bugles blare and the screen orders CHARGE! Almost everything that transpires on the field, from hits to errors to fights, merits editorial comment from the screen—sometimes witty, occasionally savage, but never subtle. As Larry McMurtry once observed, “The game’s true function is to provide material for the man who operates the screen.”
What makes the Astrolite so sinister is the incredible power it seems to possess: even a man as willful and cynical as McMurtry found himself, to his horror, unconsciously muttering “charge” by the seventh inning. Umpires have complained of being genuinely intimidated when the screen answered close calls with a huge WE WUZ ROBBED, and the league commissioner felt compelled to rebuke the Dome’s management. As the Dome’s official guidebook succinctly puts it, “A trip to the Astrodome is enough to convince anyone that baseball will never be the same again.”
The largest convention in the world is the annual meeting of the National Association of Home Builders so, naturally, the Judge wanted them for Houston. Or, more specifically, for his still-unbuilt (this was 1964) Astrodome. The NAHB had never in its history met anywhere but Chicago, and showed no great yearning to explore new territories—particularly not in drinkless, taxiless, then-Domeless Houston—but the Judge was determined.
For eighteen months the 450 members of the NAHB’s board of directors were shamelessly wined, dined, proselytized, and plain browbeat with respect to the exotic splendors of the Bayou City. Then in April 1966 the Judge took a private jet up to Washington D.C., to present his case at the showdown board meeting.
Houston was allotted fifteen minutes to address the board, which time was divided evenly amongst the Judge and the two men he’d brought along to help him: Mayor Louie Welch and Governor John Connally.
Connally opened with a splendid soliloquy on Texas’ scenic wonderments, mentioning that the state has more lakes than any other excepting Alaska, “where the lakes are generally frozen.” Speaking to the more urgent problem of Texas’ archaic liquor laws, Connally pledged, if need be, to call an emergency session of the Liquor Control Board in El Paso while the convention was meeting in Houston.
Welch, after remarking what a shame it was that neither Chicago’s mayor nor Illinois’ governor was able to show up, quickly dealt with the taxi shortage. There would be more than 500 courtesy cars, he promised available free to anyone with an NAHB registration badge.
Then came the Judge, who needed to assuage NAHB fears that they might lose money on exhibitor-rental fees by moving from Chicago to the hinterlands. “I understand you’d like us to guarantee $750,000 for each of three years,” said the Judge, “and you want satisfactory evidence of our ability to meet that guaranty.”
The board members nodded their assent.
The judge glanced over to the NAHB treasurer. “Would cash be satisfactory?”
The very first paragraph of the official Astrodome guidebook reads as follows:
“The Astrodome is the Taj Mahal of all stadia, from ancient Rome’s Coloseum even to the present day. Once a Texas swamp, its 260-acre setting now enfolds a sparkling diamond whose brilliance is refracted ’round the world. It is beyond compare, because nothing like it has ever been built before. This colossal amphitheatre, built at a cost of $38,000,000 is located six miles from downtown Houston, and is served by a radius of roads making it easily the most accessible stadium in the world.”
Gus Grissom and John Young, recently returned from the initial Gemini flight, are sitting in the skybox.
Young: “This is the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen.’
Grissom: “Well, you’ve been around.”
Reduced to the tame dimensions of print, Roy Hofheinz’ life reads like collaboration between Horatio Alger and Sinclair Lewis. A precocious learner, he finished high school at fifteen with a pair of scholarship offers, but had to abandon them when his father was killed driving a laundry truck. To support his family he began booking dance bands through East Texas, brokered radio time, and discovered there was no great mystery involved in the making of money.
He went to law school at nights, passed the bar at nineteen, was sent to the legislature at 22. At 24, in 1936, he was elected county judge, the youngest man to hold such office in a major county in the nation—ever. The honorific title of Judge is the legacy of eight tempestuous, energetic years spent presiding over Harris County. His enthusiasm for building was apparent even when as he expanded the road-paving program, formed the flood control district, began a brace of toll-free tunnels under the ship channel and a battery of New Deal-funded projects.
In 1944, owning less than when he started, the Judge announced he was taking a sabbatical from politics until he could make himself into a millionaire, which he figured would take about eight years. Dealing in real estate, practicing law, working in the slag and the radio business, he met his deadline easily (even with time out to run his friend Lyndon Johnson’s 1948 campaign for U.S. Senate), and reentered politics in 1952 as Houston’s freshly elected mayor. It was not a casual reentry.
With all the brashness he could muster, Hofheinz launched a public works program that resembled a Five-Year Plan for the Roman Empire. City Hall, in the rotund person of the mayor, was suddenly everywhere—building, annexing, condemning, overhauling, unveiling the new Houston International Airport. When the City Council griped bitterly about not being consulted on any of these public endeavors, the Judge answered blithely that, well, come to think of it, he didn’t need their help anyway. He called his councilmen “cookie-jar boys” with their hands in the till, prompting a furious challenge from one of them to step outside for a while. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the council decided merely to impeach him. The Judge laughed them down as “penitentiary inmates trying to oust the warden,” and the council responded by locking him out of City Hall. The voters threw away the key in the next election.
The Judge’s cavalier approach to city government, and the surreal ambience that surrounded his whole tenure, have generally obscured the considerable achievements of his brief fling at municipal administration. His personal integrity was never once called into question (that being a notable distinction in itself) and his grandiose schemes, while perhaps wanting to restraint, undoubtedly laid the groundwork for Houston’s subsequent dizzy economic expansion.
He was also an idealistic, effective innovator in the area of race relations. As county judge was back in the Thirties he integrated public golf courses and buses, always in the straightforward Hofheinz manner of just doing it, without asking or telling. As mayor he had “colored” and “white” painted out on City Hall rest room signs and nobody realized it for months. He similarly integrated the public libraries, again without discernible reaction until a prominent River Oaks matron stormed into his office one day.
“I won’t let my children go to the library,” she huffed. “I don’t know what they might catch!”
The Judge leaned back in his chair. “Maybe tolerance,” he said.
“I always wanted to be a baseball player when I was a kid,” admitted the Judge. “But I had three handicaps: I couldn’t run, hit, or throw.”
“Buckminster Fuller [poet, philosopher, architect, and inventor of the geodesic dome] convinced me of one thing: it’s possible to cover any size space if you don’t run out of money.” The Judge
“It’s an engineering blunder.” Buckminster Fuller
“I’m not saying it’s perfect. But within the limitations of $45 million I think it’s as perfect as possible.” The Judge
And An Astrofable
The Monsanto Chemical Company hurriedly recalled their foremost salesman, charged him with the highest priority sale of his career, and frantically dispatched him to Houston. Agronomists had recently abandoned any possibility of cultivating grass in the Astrodome, and Monsanto hoped thus to secure a first customer for their newly developed “revolutionary material”: synthetic grass.
The salesman was ushered into a meeting with Judge Hofheinz, who watched impassively while the man unveiled a gallery of charts, drawings, renderings, and brochures, simultaneously delivering a brief, but breathless, carefully memorized sales pitch on the wonders of synthetic grass matting.
When the salesman completed his spiel, the Judge remained rock-still and stone-faced. Sensing indecision, nervously fearing a lapse into uneasy quietude, the salesman quickly launched into a recap of his product’s attractions: durability…easy replacement…cheap maintenance…colorful….He continued for ten minutes in mounting consternation, his eyes anxiously surveying the Judge for some slight indication of interest.
The Judge was absolutely immobile; stoical; expressionless.
Growing desperate, but truly a protean salesman, the man plunged once more into a paean on the glories of man-made grass, praising its miracles for another fifteen increasingly terrifying minutes. The Judge never blinked an eye.
The salesman, now thoroughly talked-out, was exhausted. “What do you think?” he gasped, pleading for a flicker of recognition.
A tremendous, formidable pause from the Judge. “Sounds good, “he deadpanned. “What’d you say it cost? “
Hope rekindled (!), the salesman blurted, “Since you’re our first buyer we’ll give it to you almost at cost: $800,000.”
“Hmmph,” grunted the Judge. “Funny thing.” Another long, fearfully long pause. “That’s just exactly what I was thinkin’ of charging you to let you call it Astroturf.”
And so, they compromised. Monsanto installed their artificial grass free and the Judge let them call it Astroturf.
When he was hanging around Vespasian’s Colosseum, the Judge had been taken not only with its roundness said its cover, but also with the fact that “all the bigwigs sat up at the top”; his Astrodome, then, obviously required that the bigwigs should sit at the top. Since that’s also the worst place from which to observe whatever’s happening on the playing field eight floors below, some means had to be found to entice all the bigwigs up there. The Judge’s answer was simple: make it expensive.
Thus were born the “sky boxes.” 53 personalized club-rooms-with-a-view featuring closed circuit television, valets and butlers, stock market tickers, and all the opulence one could want, available at a starting price of $20,000 to anyone whose ego demanded he have one, and who wasn’t too fussy about actually seeing the game. These sky boxes are without question among the world’s classic examples of senseless consumption and four-star self-indulgence. Never let it be said that the Judge didn’t understand his audience.
His great gift, really, was the ability to create a demand for something as gaudy and pointless as (just for example) sky boxes, and them have people pay outlandish sums to get them. This achievement alone would stand him as one of the supreme hucksters of all time. For nine years he even lived in the Dome itself, tucked away behind the scoreboard in a mini-palace that Bob Hope called “early King Farouk,” wheeling and dealing in the grandest imaginable style. Like a Roman emperor, you might say.
Then, a little over a year ago, the Judge suffered a stroke which has left him physically, though not mentally, impaired, and has forced him to move out of the Dome and to relax his day-to-day dominance of its operation. Though the prospect of a Judgeless Dome is difficult to conceive, his absence is already becoming apparent. Early plans for the Dome’s Tenth Anniversary included a gigantic production of Verdi’s Aida, performed by Milan’s La Scala troop with a supporting cast of lions, elephants, and 10,000 people. There was also talk of a baseball challenge from Cuba’s national championship team. But while these schemes all have the ring of the Judge’s imagination, without the Judge himself to bring them off they simply may not happen.
Likewise in daily dealings, the Dome without the Judge is a dubious Dome indeed. As one man who’s done business with them puts it, “The place really isn’t prepared to function without him. He was a one-man show for so long that no coherent organizational structure ever appeared. Where before everyone always deferred to the Judge, now you mostly just have confusion. They seem to have some cash flow problems in terms of having much ready money on hand. They’ve always had those, probably, because the overhead’s so high, but the Judge never worries about little details like that and he always blustered his way through. It’s lucky for them that they got all their big loans before interest rates went through the roof.” Or the Dome.
“The trouble with Roy Hofheinz is that he never learned to work under the democratic process.” Louie Welch, also a former Houston mayor
“The man who said that is an idiot.” The Judge
The world’s indoor basketball attendance record was set on January 20, 1968, when the University of Houston Cougars beat UCLA 71-69.
There are more water fountains in the Dome (40) than in any other major league stadium.
The baseball dugouts in the Astrodome are (what else?) the world’s largest, so long—120 feet—that one Astro brought his motor scooter with him to drag up and down the length of it. Visiting teams grouse regularly about the need for walkie-talkies to send signals from one end to the other.
“There’s psychology behind this,” explains the Judge. “People like to go home and say they had seats behind the dugout.”
That’s true: there’s no such thing as sitting way out on the left-field sideline in the Dome; the visitors’ dugout stretches all the way down the left-field sideline.
“We can get 65 per cent of our seats behind the dugout,” says the Judge.
In many quarters there has been a noticeable sigh of relief that somebody—New Orleans, as it happens—is finally building a domed stadium even bigger than the Astrodome, thus removing from the neck of Texas an embarrassing albatross. It’s become fashionable these days to aim snide, pious potshots in the direction of the Dome, and at all it represents or encourages: ostentation, pretention, indulgence, megalomania, waste.
A Texas cultural axiom has long been our uncanny knack for confusing quantity with quality, appearance with substance, price with value, and the Astrodome seems to epitomize all that. Larry McMurtry, who observes his home state with a kind of painful ambivalence, has called the Dome “echt-Texas” and the perfect symbol of what he terms the Old Vulgarity. “Money,” said McMurtry , “like any other god, should be worshipped in a proper setting, and with an appropriate ritual, and the Dome provides both.”
This revisionist, decidedly mordant view of the Dome can probably be seen as a reflection of the way Texas has changed, grown more sophisticated, acquired a patina of urbanity. More importantly, though, it shows the route we’ve taken from there to here, with the Dome revealing a blaze on the cultural trail. Roy Hofheinz is a remarkable man, and characteristic (if not altogether typical) of a remarkable generation of Texans, the last one to come into a world that was, metaphorically speaking, still open range. Their Texas was unfenced and rich, and without the dense thicket of custom and ordinance required in modern society. Hence they had unfettered visions of epic possibilities, and some of them, like Hofheinz, had the drive and the swagger to match the vision. It was his role, an achievement actually, to memorialize them all, to build a monument to those who, for better or worse, fashioned the modern Texas out of energy and gall. And in that sense, of course, the Astrodome really does hold kinship with the Flavian Colosseum or the Rhodes Colossus, as sort of a boneyard of the Texas sensibility.
“Any way you look at it that’s one helluva lot of dugout.”