The Houston Astrodome as Family Member, or "What's Judy Garland Doing on the Field?"
Being raised in Houston during the 1960s heyday of the Dome provided many treasured memories beyond baseball.
I remember, as a ten-year-old, walking up the concourse ramp for the first time, as the green turf of the field gave gradual way to the rainbow panorama of the distant seats and the metal beams of the improbable roof.
Houston’s Astrodome was born in Space City in 1965, a scant couple of miles from my birthplace, and a solid decade after me.
The Harris County Domed Stadium, aka “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” emerged from the parking lot of the old Colt Stadium “as sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti” (to shamelessly squeeze in a Toto “Africa” reference).
The National League expansion team Houston Colt .45s began life in 1962, and Colt Stadium served as their home for three years.
The world’s first domed, multi-purpose stadium was the brainchild of former Houston mayor Judge Roy Hofheinz, who initially conceived of the enclosed-field concept as early as 1952.
Opening in April, 1965 with an exhibition game between the Astros and the New York Yankees, the Dome was also home to the Houston Oilers NFL team from 1968 until 1997. The Oilers had previously played their home games at both Jeppesen Stadium and Rice University’s Rice Stadium for their first eight years.
Poor, disheveled Colt Stadium lay dormant for several years, before being dismantled (not unlike a large Erector Set of the day) in the early ‘70s, and shipped in pieces over the span of four years. A county tax liability by this time, it was sold and reassembled in Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico, for use as the home venue for a Mexican League team.
The stadium was popularly known there as the Estadio Mecano, or Millón de Tuercas (Million Screws), due to its ability to be taken apart and reassembled repeatedly (if not conveniently).
Nolan Ryan Remembers
Hall of Fame pitcher (and former Astro, 1980-88) Nolan Ryan counts the Dome’s atmosphere during the Astros’ 1980 and 1986 NLCS appearances as his most memorable.
He also recently reflected: “The first memories that come back to me are of when they were building the Astrodome. I would go to old Colt Stadium. Back then, they wouldn’t close construction sites, so you could go to the hole and try to envision what a domed stadium would look like. For a kid coming from Alvin, Texas, that was a big happening for us to watch that process going on!”
“Stop! In the Name of Glove”
Sporting events were not the limit for the Astrodome. The first (of many subsequent) musical artists to appear in the Dome was Judy Garland, then 43, with The Supremes as her opening act, a week before Christmas, ’65.
My mother dragged me to that show, and while I slept through most of it as a 10 1/2-year-old more enamored of The Beatles and AM Top 40 radio, I clearly recall seeing a tiny woman with a big voice onstage, from my head-on-Mom’s-lap point of view.
In fact, I seem to recall having field seats, which would have put us in the so-called “top-priority Golden Circle,” with 12,000 seats (@$6.50) set up surrounding the stage on three sides. It’s likely we had freebies, either ones Dad got from the radio station, or from Judy’s management.
Garland’s manager/agent at the time was Freddie Fields, and Mom worked for Freddie’s brother, Shep Fields. Shep was a popular big-band leader (“Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythm”) in the ‘30s and ‘40s, who moved to Houston around 1960 to begin an entertainment booking agency, with offices in the iconic and massive Shamrock Hilton Hotel (opened in 1949, it was demolished in 1987).
Mom worked in the Shamrock with Shep for a couple years before branching off and starting her own booking agency, Artists Corporation of Texas (ACT), which she single-handedly helmed (under a different company name) for decades, even into the early part of this century.
The Supremes, openers for Judy at her Astrodome one-nighter, consisted of the original classic Motown lineup of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard. Ten months after their Dome appearance, The Supremes appeared on TV’s Hollywood Palace, with a couple songs and arrangements that might’ve shown up on their December ‘65 setlist:
A Look Back to That Historic Musical Night:
My family attended many dozens of baseball games in the late ’60s, thanks in large part to my dad’s job as an account executive for KTRH, the local CBS radio affiliate, and with it, his ability to score free tickets at will.
A special memory for me as a 13-year-old came one day in 1968, during an Astros game with the San Francisco Giants: A foul ball hit by Giants third baseman Jim Davenport floated its way in my direction, seated as we were just to the left of home plate.
A lady seated in front of me reached up to try to catch it. Missing it, the ball landed between her back and the back of her seat. I reached forward and snatched that ball as if it were the last fried shrimp at Golden Corral.
My dad, brother and I would often attend games, leaving Mom happily at home. With Dad’s radio creds, we could access the press box with no trouble. We lunged at the opportunity to carry a cassette tape recorder into the booth with us, and took hilarious turns calling the game into the recorder!
Dad would usually cover play-by-play, while my brother and I (both of us adolescents) took turns as the color guy, once Dad explained to us what the “color guy” was supposed to do. Eager to pull our respective legs, he delighted in telling us that the color guy filled in specific words relating to….yep, color: Play-by-play guy: “Welcome to the Astrodome! Outside the sky is…” Color guy: “Blue,” PBP: “…while the grass is…” CG: “Green.” You get the drift.
The fun continued, of course, in the car on the way home, as we’d listen to the silliness we had just committed to tape that night in the press box.
It’s here where Dad broke out his legendary (to us) sense of wildly creative humor, long before corny humor from fathers was referred to as “Dad jokes”!
One night at a game, we noticed a gaggle of gals in the mezzanine who had taken more than advantage of dollar beer night. Observing them, Dad intoned into the mic, “It’s the ninth inning and the bags are loaded…..now to the action on the field!”
“Luv Ya Blue!”
I was at the Dome in 1979 when 45,000 Houston Oilers fans held a pep rally for the team after their loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game. “After”…”loss.” Most teams’ fans would hold a pep rally before a big game. It wouldn’t occur to most fans to congregate to “celebrate” a big loss.
But, there we were in the Astrodome, proudly showing the city’s love and support, as much for the building that housed the team, as for the team who filled it each Sunday. The next year, a similar outcome brought about the second straight Astrodome pep rally for the Oilers, with some 20,000+ more fans than the year before:
I even bought a tear-away, Columbia blue home jersey of RB Ronnie Coleman in the late ‘70s, when the league outlawed those tear-away uniform tops shortly after they introduced them! The Oilers’ office held a “fire sale” of sorts to unload the suddenly unusable and expendable jerseys. Needless to say, Earl Campbell home jerseys were gone in minutes, if not seconds!
And, Even as She Struggles to Define Her Future…
For 3 1/2 decades, the Astrodome also hosted everything from rodeos and concerts by Elvis and the Stones to monster truck rallies and motorcycle races, political conventions and college basketball games to tennis exhibitions, Evel Knievel jumps, movie filming and boxing matches to the Mets’ Lindsey Nelson broadcasting suspended from the roof’s gondola high above second base.
But, perhaps the ole girl’s biggest accomplishment is the one least likely to make it onto a plaque or into an accounting of Houston sports history: Providing a place for a family to get together over hot dogs, popcorn, a tape recorder and some laughs, and create memories impossible to re-create anywhere else.
Caps off to the Astrodome, Houston’s venerable Grande Dame of sports and entertainment! Long (and prosperous) may she stand!
Plus, enjoy these recent, personal recollections of the Astros, Oilers, and the Dome, from a Texas City native born in the mid-’60s, Glenn Cook, scribe of “Our Reality Show”:
Do you have personal memories of visiting Colt Stadium and/or the Astrodome? If so, kindly leave your comments by clicking on this button:
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