Fifty years ago, March 17 marked the grand opening of wildcatter-turned-millionaire-oilman Glenn McCarthy's Shamrock Hotel, an homage to green, the color of money. Movie stars such as Erroll Flynn, Pat O'Brien, Sonja Henie and Kirk Douglas rode from Hollywood to Houston on a special train. Hoop skirts crowded the hallways. Champagne corks hit important people in the head. A gang of Rice University students (who bribed their way in through the kitchen) caused musical chairs at the seated dinner. And Dorothy Lamour's national radio show, broadcasting from the Emerald Room, got so loud and foulmouthed that it was pulled off the air and poor Dorothy cried. Needless to say, everyone was drunk -- but not drunk like we get drunk today. They were, as one reporter described it, "beautifully drunk."
The party cost $1.5 million, but the ostentatious hotel itself cost $21 million. Here's an idea of how much money that was in 1949: A double (or twin) room cost only $8 to $18 a night and had the very exclusive amenities of air-conditioning and television. The swimming pool was so big the hotel could, and did, give waterskiing demonstrations.
Sadly, the boom days didn't last. When McCarthy hit financial trouble, he sold the Shamrock to Hilton. In 1986 Hilton sold/gave the hotel to the Texas Medical Center for $14.9 million and a huge tax write-off. The TMC then tore it down in favor of those strange columns of water that now occupy the corner of Main and Holcombe.
But the Shamrock did not go gently. There were the proposals for meeting the new fire codes and turning it into a Ronald McDonald House. There was the St. Patrick's Day parade/protest where sentimentalists wore T-shirts that said, "Tearing Down the Shamrock Would Be Like Tearing Down the Alamo." There was the giant garage sale that got rid of everything that could be carried away. There was the fire in its basement as it was coming down.
This St. Patrick's Day, you can do what the party's name urges: "Remember the Shamrock!" at the still-standing Grand Ballroom, now known as the Edwin Hornberger Center.
-- Lauren Kern
The 50th anniversary of the Shamrock Hotel is Wed., Mar. 17, 4 p.m.-midnight. 6900 Main. $10.