Houston just can't shake its inferiority complex. Every few years, the phrase "world class" starts making regular appearances on the editorial pages, and the opera and the museums are thrust forth as proof that, really and truly, we're just as good as any other metropolis. Boosters relentlessly tout our showings on those dreadful places-rated lists, or note that "Houston" was the first word uttered on the moon, or recall that Bob Hope -- Bob Hope! -- once said the most beautiful view he'd ever seen was South Main from his window at the Warwick Hotel.
The latest round of handwringing over the city's "image" began last year, after Mayor Bob Lanier suddenly realized that Houston has no image to speak of. His solution was to have his wife appointed to head the new Houston Image Group, then see to it that the organization was gifted with a million bucks from taxpayers -- even though its function seemed oddly similar to the one already being filled by the Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The move drew criticism, but Elyse Lanier was undeterred, approaching her new assignment with the same single-mindedness she once displayed in peddling David Webb jewelry to her fellow ladies who lunch. She's had such cronies as restaurateur Tony Vallone and Foley's Linda Knight appointed to the Image Group's ten-member board, and the outfit is moving to hire an executive director and an advertising firm.
We had wondered idly how Elyse and company would go about packaging and selling the city. Maybe they'd inundate the rest of the country with a slogan -- say, something in the brilliant tradition of "Houston's Hot." Or maybe they'd import New Yorkers and San Franciscans and Parisians -- people from first-rate, self-confident cities -- and wine and dine them and drive them around, so that they'd have the chance to approve of us. Or maybe Elyse would just invite Bob Hope back for one last visit, in case he felt like saying something nice again.
But now all has been revealed, thanks to Elyse's recent appearance on On Point, the aptly named vanity production that canine-like Controller Lloyd Kelley is permitted to air at all hours of the day on the city's Municipal Channel. In between suing the city and failing to show up to give his monthly financial reports to City Council, Kelley managed to sit still for a whole 30 minutes as he and Elyse cooed and gee-whizzed over Houston's many fine points: the opera and the museums, the restaurants and the quality of life and even -- we're not making this up -- the weather.
It was a half-hour of perfectly distilled Houston -- desperately eager to please, desperately eager to be pleasing. Elyse, dressed as the ambassador from Saks, flashed that big lipsticked smile at Lloyd, and Lloyd, looking alternately like Gomer Pyle's moronic younger brother and a habitual shoplifter, beamed back that toothsome, slightly addled grin of his. Listening as they stretched wildly to overcompensate for our lack of scenery, history and nightlife, you wanted to pat their hands, to say, "There, there, it's really not all that bad."
You can't imagine two San Franciscans or New Yorkers or Parisians conducting such an exercise, even in the wilds of public access. People from those cities would spend their air time complaining, whining about the impossible cost of living, or the dirty streets, or how it's impossible to buy a decent baguette anymore.
Provincial as the Elyse 'n' Lloyd show was, though, it was somehow weirdly endearing. It even left us feeling a little more kindly toward our town, a warm glow that lingered until we found ourselves stuck out in the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the West Loop later in the day. It's a feeling that, however fleeting it was, we'd like to share. So, for the cable-deprived among our readers, or for those who found the latest Moesha more compelling viewing, we offer these highlights from On Point (all dialogue guaranteed verbatim):
Museums? We got 'em!
Elyse: "I mean, you can go to museums for days ... the Egyptian exhibit, we have the natural science, the Smithsonian is here, we have the Holocaust Museum, we have the health museum, the Menil ... I mean it just goes on, it's ... it's unbelievable."
Lots of restaurants, too
Elyse: "We have over 8,500 restaurants in Houston. We have fabulous restaurants in Houston ...."
And lots of food
Elyse: "... and they're good restaurants. I mean, look at me -- they're great restaurants."
Elyse on Houston's hotels
"We have great hotels."
Opportunities to shop!
Elyse: "As far as shopping, we have great antique shops ...."
Lloyd: "Oh, now that I know ...."
Elyse on the best place to buy art in Houston from a gallery owner who contributed $5,000 to help stage her husband's last inaugural
"I mean, go to Meredith Long, he has, you know, the greatest artists in the world."
Houston versus New York
Lloyd: "What it sounds like is you're describing New York without the crime."
Elyse: "Exactly ... we have the exact same thing. Not only without the crime -- it's clean. Every time we go to New York, and we're riding along in the streets, and we're bumping along, I feel so sorry for the mayor. I think about all the potholes he should be filling."
More on New York's shortcomings
Elyse: "They only fill 175,000 potholes a year. We fill 475,000."
Elyse: "Yeeess ... and I love that number!"
Lloyd: "I bet you've heard that number over and over."
Elyse: "I have. I'm really not a great numbers person, but that one really does amuse me."
Elyse on the Port of Houston
"Our port is magnificent."
We've got "drive-bys," too
Lloyd: "We have some of the prettiest drive-bys .... I know you and Bob both commented on the Main Street drive around Rice."
Elyse: "That's right. He thought that's the prettiest in the world ...."
Lloyd: "And then we have Memorial, and Allen Parkway, which is gettin' prettier ...."
Elyse: "Isn't it beautiful?"
Lloyd: "Isn't it nice?"
Elyse on Houston's parks
"Our parks are so beautiful ... our parks are so magnificent."
Elyse on the made-over Moody Park
Lloyd: "Let's not forget a world-class opera house ... and world-class opera."
Elyse: "Oh ... it's amazing."
Lloyd: "I mean, the season here, compared to even San Francisco ... they're redoing their theater out there."
Elyse: "Well ours is, I mean ...."
Lloyd: "World class."
Elyse: "World class."
And there's always a place to sit in Houston
Elyse: "One of my favorite selling points is that next to New York City, we have more theater seats than anybody else in the country."
Lloyd: "Is that right?"
Elyse: "Yes, I think we have a little over 10,000, something like that, and we are number two next to New York. I think that's startling."
Elyse on public response to the Houston Image Group
"It's been fabulous ...."
Houston versus Dallas
Elyse: "Dallas, as a comparison, had Neiman Marcus and then Stanley Marcus -- and when he sold Neiman Marcus, it really sold the city, and we never had a Stanley Marcus. We never had anybody like that who really thought, 'We've really got to go out and sell this' ...."
Lloyd: "Plus, they had a TV show ... Dallas."
Elyse: "They had a TV show."
Elyse's advice on sales and marketing
"You've got to sell what you've got."
On what they think of when they think of Seattle
Elyse: "When I think of Seattle, I think of commuters ...."
Lloyd: "I think of rain ...."
Elyse: "Well, it's kinda supposed to be pretty there, too, from what I understand."
[Editor's note: She may, of course, have meant to say computers.]
What Elyse wants you to think of when you think of Houston
"I want Houston to be thought of as a very diverse, cosmopolitan, international city."
Repetition, repetition, repetition
"... diverse, cosmopolitan, international."
Elyse on the Medical Center
"Oh, it's just unbelievable."
On the enormousness of Elyse's task
Lloyd: "It's almost overwhelming to think of how you would package a city with so much going on, so much going for it."
Elyse: "There are so many different areas you can get involved in -- there's an area for everybody."
We have met the enemy, and he's hot
Elyse: "Probably the most important thing that I personally would like to sell is the weather ... everybody says, 'Oh, the Houston heat,' and Houston is the worst about. We are our own worst enemy: 'It's so hot in Houston!' Lemme tell you something: It's maybe hot three or four months out of the year. The rest of the year ...."
Lloyd: "It's beautiful."
Elyse: "It's beautiful. Would you want to freeze in Buffalo, New York, or Cleveland, or Minneapolis?"
But if you can't stand the heat...
Elyse: "[Houston's] really got about the best climate in the world. People tend to focus on the negative and the heat. But you know, it's the most air-conditioned city in the world, too, and it seems to me if they're hot, they'll go inside!"
Lloyd: "... in the evening, it's not bad."
Elyse: "Not at all."
Houston versus New York, Chicago and Detroit
Elyse: "We don't have that sleet and snow. I mean, it's a mess."
On the task ahead of us
Elyse: "We in Houston, though, have to really discipline ourselves in this one area more than anywhere else .... I've heard preachers say, when they would get up and talk in August, 'Ohhhhh, it's so hot outside.' Rather than starting out with 'so hot outside'...."
Lloyd: "Generally it's not hotter here than it is in Washington in August."
Elyse: "Not at all, not at all. We're just so spoiled with the weather the rest of the year .... We just have a little heat for a couple of months."
Lloyd: "Well, good luck on that one."
Elyse: "That is my personal pet peeve, to hear people talk about the weather -- because it is so wonderful."
And you thought it was cosmetic surgery
Elyse: "And the other thing: People say the humidity is so bad. Do you realize how good the humidity is for your skin?"
Lloyd "... you're an expert on that."
Elyse: "It's true: If you go to Arizona or Colorado, it is so dry. Oh, my God! I mean ...."
Houston versus La Jolla, California
Elyse: "My husband and I went to La Jolla this summer and the weather was really beautiful. But the restaurants were not great. I mean, there were very few restaurants that we went to that were really good. And you take Houston -- we've got great weather, great restaurants."
Diversity? Got that too!
Lloyd: "And the diversity of food ... you forgot about that, the fact that you can get almost anything you want. There's a new, um, Indian cafeteria that opened up in the Village. I mean, think about that."
Elyse: "I've heard about it. It's great."
Lloyd: "It's amazing how much diversity ... only in New York can they match that."
Elyse: "Yeah, we really do have it here."
Lloyd: "It's really exciting."
[Editor's note: We assume he was referring to the new Dimassi's in Rice Village, which serves Middle Eastern food. But we know how it is -- all this diversity can get confusing.]
Lloyd asks Elyse whether Houston's "high tech" stuff is going to be part of her program
"Oh, oh ... yes ... I don't know as much about that yet, but that definitely is part of it."
Elyse lists Houston's wonderful corporate leaders "Gordon Bethune is a wonderful leader ... Philip Carrol is a wonderful leader ... Ken Lay is a wonderful leader ...."
Don't forget another wonderful leader
Elyse: "Think of the projects we have going on downtown. I mean, the Rice Hotel is being done as we speak -- that is so exciting!"
Lloyd: "Michael Stevens gets big credit for that."
Elyse: "Michael Stevens did a fabulous job!"
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Elyse on the rodeo
"The rodeo is fabulous."
... To a point
"But we're not gonna think of Houston as just ... cows."
Elyse on what Elyse knows
"All I know is selling, and I love to sell, and I especially love to sell things, products, that are really wonderful ...."
On the high cost (or not) of selling the city
Lloyd: "We have a lot to sell."
Elyse: "And it costs a lot."
Lloyd: "Not really."
Elyse: "To advertise? It costs a lot ...."
Lloyd: "It costs more not to."
Elyse: "You're absolutely right -- it costs more not to!