By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
We should have known something fishy was up two years ago when Landry's Seafood honcho Tilman Fertittagushed all over The Insider when asked about his then unpublicized bid to renovate Fire Station No. 1 and the old city waterworks downtown.
A tipster had slipped us the contents of a series of confidential presentations to a municipal evaluation committee. Fertitta's plan sank the competing "World of Atlantis" hotel-fishbowl pushed by developer Billy Burgeand state Representative Garnet Coleman. "Eat and ogle the fishes" triumphed over "Sleep with the fishes."
At the time, Fertitta compared his new brainchild to what he'd done with the Kemah Boardwalk: completely plasticizing the once authentic and charming fisherman's wharf area of that Galveston Bay community. "It's on a much more mammoth level" than Kemah, Fertitta said enthusiastically.
Fertitta went on to describe how he would redevelop the turtle- and wino-infested wedge of land near the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and I-45 -- once convention center director Jordy Tollett wired the deal to have the city lease him the property. Never mind that Fertitta's fantasy seemed to have more bells, whistles and appendages than Tollett's celebrated former watering hole for city clients, Rick's Cabaret.
"The entertainment area will enclose all the acreage of the fire station, with trains and fountains," Tilman explained just before he paused and chuckled mysteriously. "And lots of other things."
In retrospect, Tilman's pronouncements clearly deserved closer scrutiny -- one Ferris wheel, one 200-foot turquoise observation tower/slingshot ride and one helipad later. Events have proved that although Fertitta may think big in private, he's a master of public understatement in order to get a deal done.
After that interview, the restaurateur personally sent The Insider a gift package, including an embossed card that allows a customer to go to the head of the line at his restaurants and get discounts on specials. We packed up the goodies and cordially sent them back to him with a firm thanks-but-no-thanks note. Maybe that was too hasty. By cultivating a fledgling relationship with the crafty Fertitta, we might have learned about all those not-so-little secrets of the Fish Tank and more.
Last week a muffled call came from an anonymous source claiming to be a mayoral staffer. The Insider had been napping at the time, and the conversation did have a dreamlike quality. A loud beat and rapping voices echoed in the background, as well as the clink of glasses and sniffing sounds. The mayor was out of town on a trade junket to Iraq, and his staff seemed to be having a good ol' time.
"You really don't get what's going on, do you?" inquired the caller. "All that stuff that Fertitta and Jordy slipped past City Council is just the beginning. And the things that have come to light are not quite what they seem."
Pressed for details, the source referred us to a rather cryptic convention center expenditure. It had been approved by Tollett for a multipurpose vehicle capable of submerging itself in Buffalo Bayou as well as cruising Houston's freeway system.
"It's code name is the Fishmobile," explained the source. "Why do you think they're building that concrete tunnel under the aquarium? It's a secret entrance-exit into the bayou for the thing."
Now, Houston has made some harebrained expenditures for downtown beautification in recent years. How about those eight-foot-tall planters that have to be watered by elevated hoses, the massive cylinder shapes described by one councilmember as "giant butt plugs"? Then there's the reworking of Jones Plaza with urinals dubbed "Jordy's' Toilet." And the Cotswold folks are putting in those wavy-gravy sidewalk fountains that seem designed to trap and drown transients. But why a submersible vehicle?
"Get the picture?" snapped our source. "The observation tower is really a periscope, the helipad is a landing point for The Flying Fish, and all those powerful spotlights are to project a fish image against the skyscrapers after midnight. And Tilman and Jordy are "
The thought was mind-boggling. "You mean, you mean," we stammered, "Tilman and Jordy are secret crime fighters?"
Our caller muttered something, and background laughter rose in volume.
"My friends wonder who'd waste their money paying you to be a reporter. Everybody knows that Fertitta and Tollett are serial good-taste killers. At night Fertitta gets into this leather fish rig and Jordy dons his punk-Jesus outfit with tank top, tattoos, gold crosses and those hideous white-and-blue shoes. Then they go out tripping on the town, spreading bad taste in all directions.
"That's the whole purpose of the Fish Tank. It's a stronghold to disseminate tacky glitz throughout the city. First they ruin the dignity of the Theater District, then they'll head for the museums. Before long, we're going to look like a cross between Disneyland and a titty bar."
At that point the line crackled and the phone went dead. Or maybe we just woke up in a cold sweat. There on the desk was a seriously turquoise press packet from Dancie Perugini Ware Public Relations offering a free underwater adventure in the Fish Tank! Only they called it "The Downtown Aquarium."
We quickly scanned the materials, complete with dreamy watercolors of pissed-off-looking sharks circling a tunnel full of ogling, delectable tourists riding a miniature gas-powered train. But there was no mention of the Fishmobile or the helipad for the Flying Fish.
On the other hand, in addition to the garish observation deck and Ferris wheel, there were dancing fountains; a bar called the Dive; aquariums full of alligators, matamata turtles, piranhas, sting rays and electric eels; and a Marina Matinee Café where diners are seated in reproductions of seagoing vessels. Surely the Titanic is reserved for Tilman and Jordy. Undoubtedly the perfect place for an intimate little concert by Wayne Newton, Barry Manilow or the like.
We reached for the phone, determined to try to stop the bad-taste conspiracy before it gets launched. A glance at the press release reinforced a sense of urgent dread. Opening day is scheduled for February 15.