After almost 40 years as a summer destination, AstroWorld is closing down.
Folks looking to drag their sweaty asses over acres of baked concrete in order to wait hours in line for a two-minute ride will now have to travel to San Antonio or Arlington. On the land where the Texas Cyclone and Greezed Lightnin' now stand will be yet another trendy retail/residential/restaurant development with an energetic PR machine. We can only hope the place contains at least one small homage to Modville, a Yellow Submarine-type area where youngsters, for the first ten years or so of AstroWorld, could be introduced to the joy of hippie-ish things like LSD and ugly animation.
Any park that featured the Wacky Shack Funhouse on Fun Island might be legitimately accused of trying too hard, but AstroWorld left an indelible mark on many kids who grew up around here. In its latter years the park dropped as much of the theme stuff as it could, opting instead for the latest in roller coasters and other thrill rides. While the kitsch factor was largely gone, it still seemed like the park would always be there to provide at least an option for entertainment close to home.
Now, after these final "Fright Fest" October weekends, AstroWorld -- some people still resist calling it "Six Flags AstroWorld" -- will be no more.
1. Jesse's Girl
Everyone, it seems, has at least one AstroWorld memory. Including roots rocker Jesse Dayton, mainstay of stages in Houston and Austin, who's played with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Ray Price. He writes:
"I was a under-developed skinny sophomore in high school, trying desperately to get in the pants of this girl who was your classic bombshell-blonde senior, but she wouldn't have anything to do with me.
"One day I noticed that she had the band Cheap Trick written about ten different ways on the cover of her Algebra 2 book a friend of mine told me Cheap Trick was playing in two weeks at AstroWorld so I immediately got tickets for the show. I told her that I had backstage passes and that she would definitely get to meet Robin Zander, the singer of Cheap Trick It was total bullshit.
"We get there do the usual ride the Cyclone, smoke a joint in the parking lot, play Galaga for an hour, get wet on the Bamboo Shoot the whole time she's treating me like her little buddy/friend zero rhythm from her! We go into the theater, and we wait for the band to come on. The whole time she's asking me, 'Why don't we just walk backstage?' 'When am I gonna meet Robin?' I make every bad excuse you could make ('Ummm these are only after-show passes'), praying for them to come onstage so she'd stop hounding me.
"They come out it's a killer show they do an encore of 'Surrender' and we all sing along then the golden moment arrives Do I tell her I lost the backstage passes?
"She starts walking over to the backstage area and I'm sweating bullets, then one of the roadies for the band immediately says, 'The meet and greet is over here.' He pulls us over with ten other people into a little area and there they are Tom, Bunny, Rick and Robin Zander himself. She meets Robin he flirts with her for all of five minutes She never knows anything about me not having the backstage passes.
"We head out to the big empty parking lot, turn on Cheap Trick's Dream Police cassette in my old man's Suburban and then she proceeds to get completely naked and bangs my lights out right there in the AstroWorld parking lot.
"I felt like the king of the world or maybe just the king of AstroWorld."
2. Change Is Gonna Come
How much did AstroWorld struggle to keep up with the times? Ask the guys at the fan site sixflagshouston.com.
You'll have to ask them, because they hate us, apparently ever since we wrote about roller-coaster safety or the lack thereof (see "Thrilled to Death," June 3, 2004). "The news media are evil vultures, and we do not trust them," the site's FAQ states. "We already made that mistake once, and now we all pretty much think that Houston Press can suck it."
Fair enough. At any rate, their comprehensive site includes an AstroWorld timeline, and there the desperate effort to remain hip, or something, is clear:
1977 -- Modville area renamed International Plaza. Boogie Fog Disco added to Country Fair area.
1981 -- Dexter Frebish Electric Roller Ride is renamed Excalibur.
1985 -- Videocity Dance Club opened in Coney Island.
1988 -- Videocity Dance Club removed.
1993 -- International Plaza themed area renamed USA.
The Boogie Fog Disco closed at some point, according to the site, but no one is sure when. (Which helps explain why it closed, we guess.) Apparently the park's closing will end construction on the Macarena Ballroom, the Grunge Garage and the "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Dance Celebration Plaza.
3. Sin City
AstroWorld held itself out as a family-oriented park, but not everything that went on was rated G.
Troy Schulze, currently the associate artistic director of Houston's avant-garde Infernal Bridegroom Productions, worked in the park as a high school student in the late '80s.
"I had to wear those little red shorts with the red shirt with the little rainbows on the sleeve," he says, unable to repress the memory.
He worked for a time at the diving show, which featured buff, hotshot divers from Florida. "In between shows I used to catch them scoping out who they were going to invite back into their little shack," he says.
Schulze also patrolled the Horizon Show, a theater where patrons lay on their backs and watched IMAX-type films projected on the ceiling.
"They'd give me a flashlight, and my job was to walk around and make sure that no one was basically having sex during the show," he says. "Sometimes I'd flash it over and I'd catch some girl going down on some guy. [My bosses] would tell me that I was supposed to stop them and let them know that this is a family park and that we don't tolerate that kind of behavior. But most of the time I just sort of let them go for a little while before I went over."
And countless young men no doubt thank you deeply, sir. The young ladies, maybe not so much.
4. Rock On (or Not)
Marty Racine spent far too many summer nights reviewing concerts at AstroWorld's Southern Star Amphitheater for the Houston Chronicle. Now editor of the Ruidoso (N.M.) News, he remembers those trying times, where the stage seemed to be directly beneath a screaming roller coaster:
"Southern Star was a theme park with a live soundtrack.
"It hadn't been touted that way. It opened as a serious venue for the nationally burgeoning 'shed circuit,' a sum- sum- summertime outdoor alternative for arena acts that could be downsized into a theater setting. A joint venture with Pace Concerts, it actually was ahead of its time -- sufficing until the Woodlands Pavilion got it right.
"The acts tended to be either pan-fried pop or long-toothed veterans. The environment proved more conducive to the former.
"Grizzlies such as Joe Jackson, Steve Winwood, the Dead and Jackson Browne had a tough time coming across. One hardly sympathized; these guys were courting younger demos as a career extender and knew the score. Of a capacity of 20,000, Joe Jackson's July 8, 1986 show sold 600 advance tickets.
"What crowd did show up chanted 'Joe! Joe!' at some points, to no good effect. 'I see you're more entertained by your own performance than ours,' Jackson sneered.
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"The pop acts supplied absolutely the worst concerts this critic had ever witnessed -- so bad they were hilarious. Deee-lite. Wham! Mister Mister.
"The worst of the worst were the Nelsons -- Matthew and Gunnar, twin sons of the late, great Rick Nelson: navel-length locks, videogenic cheekbones, showbiz bloodlines. 'Musically well, let's just say that Nelson's songs are quite possibly the worst rock songs I have ever heard,' I wrote of their Aug. 19, 1991 performance.
"But wait, here's Deee-Lite: 'Saturday at Southern Star Amphitheater was the worst pop-music performance I can recall' was the summary of their May 6, 1991 appearance.
"Southern Star. You gotta love it. Now that it's gone."