Houston 101: Hi, Bob!

When it comes to stand-up, Houston isn't famous merely for launching the careers of some of the edgiest comedians of the `70s and `80s. It also gave the world Bob Newhart.

Newhart grew up in Chicago and became an accountant, but always had a comedy jones. He wrote gags and did some radio work in Miami, but still hadn't fully committed to giving up the day job for what seemed an unlikely dream.

Then he came to the Tidelands club in Houston.

Newhart had impressed an agent with his routines, and the agent wanted to record an album. He wanted a live feel for it, so Newhart was booked into the Tidelands, a club along what was then the classy entertainment strip of South Main.

He'd never played a nightclub before, but went out and killed.

As he put it in his recent (charming if lightweight) autobiography I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This:

It was my very first stand-up gig, and I was the opening act at the Tidelands Motor Inn in Houston. I performed the only three routines I had, "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue," "The Driving Instructor," and "The Cruise of the U.S.S. Codfish."

The audience was particularly responsive one night, and they gave me a lengthy applause.

As I left the stage, I walked by the maître d'.

"Go back out there. They want to hear more," he said.

"That's all I have," I explained.

I reluctantly walked back onstage. The applause died down, and I asked them, "Which one would you like to hear again?"

The performance on February 10, 1960 was recorded. And soon made history.

The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart reached Number One on the Billboard charts and won a Grammy for Album of the Year. The material on it is as fresh as ever. He never looked back.

The Tidelands didn't get as much out of the gig as Newhart did. As with the rest of South Main, including the legendary Shamrock Hotel, time passed it by. (For a long time it was managed by Dickie Maegel, a former Rice football player who became famous in the `50s when an Alabama player jumped off the bench to stop him on a breakaway TD run in the Cotton Bowl. And yes, Rice used to play in the Cotton Bowl.)

The Tidelands included the club and a motel, and for a while in the 1980s it was used as a grad dorm by Rice -- where students no doubt played "Hi, Bob!" and took a drink whenever someone said that on the comic's sitcom.

But caught as it was between Rice and the Medical Center, its days were pretty well numbered. About 10 years ago it was demolished and is now a vacant lot.

Bob Newhart, on the other hand, is still going strong.

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