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Interview with: Alan J. Becker
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: February 19, 2009
DG: Today is February 19. We are in the offices of Alan J. Becker who is being interviewed for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you, Mr. Becker?
AJB: Fine, David. Nice to see you again.
DG: Nice to see you. Alan, let’s begin at the beginning. Where were you born and when?
AJB: Well, I was born in Houston at 2005 Welch Street, which is about 2 blocks east of Shepherd, and I lived there until I was 12, went to Johnson Junior High, the one that was on Almeda. Now, there is one in Meyerland. We moved to the Riverside Drive area. I went to San Jacinto High School, graduated there in 1950. From there, University of Texas, graduated in 1954. Two years in the Air Force. Back to Houston and went to work.
DG: Let’s talk about Houston when you were a kid. What kind of town was Houston when you were a little boy?
AJB: Well, my perception is probably different now than it used to be but I remember where River Oaks Shopping Center is, we used to go crawdadding there. We used to get a stick with a string on the end. Of course, you would put a little bacon on the end of that but I remember it because of what is there now. To me, it was as big then to a child as I guess it is now as an adult. The size has grown tremendously and the opportunities that are here have grown tremendously. But the child, as I real, lives in a small world. River Oaks Theater, during the war, we used to wrap our tin foil in a ball and if you wrapped it in a ball, you got a discount ticket to go to a Saturday show, or you would bring anything for the war effort. And it was the collection every Saturday. I did that every Saturday – I went to the theater there to see a movie. Don Winslow and the Navy and all the shorts they used to have as part of the Saturday morning movies. It was always a very friendly town, as I recall. As a child, it was a very friendly town. Sold Liberty magazines and the Saturday Evening Post from door to door, went to Woodrow Wilson Elementary School which is still there, as a matter of fact. But, as I recall, it was a friendly, warm . . . I had a wonderful childhood. I did not have a lot of money but I did not know what . . . my mother used to tell me, “Did you eat 3 times a day? You are not poor.” So, we had a good time. I really enjoyed my childhood. No bad memories of anything in my childhood.
DG: What were the kind of things that were important to kids back then? What kind of things did you do? What did you do with your spare time? You mentioned crawdad fishing and movies. What else?
AJB: Well, of course, school was the focus of our attention at that time, the primary focus of our attention. Also, summer. In the summer, I would go to Galveston. I spent a lot of time in Galveston. My mother was born and raised in Galveston, so I used to go see the grandmother and stay with her. So Galveston was a major play area for us. It was 50 miles down the road so it made it quite nice. I played kick the can. That was a major outdoor sport. I think we were more focused on school first because our parents beat on us and the entertainment areas that we did. We did not spend a lot of money. The beach was free. Kick the can was free. All we needed was a can. Fishing for crawdads. That was free. We did not spend much money on entertainment like they do now. Caught a bus downtown. 11, 12 years old. Caught a bus downtown. Went to James Coney Island and had 2 hotdogs, then went to a movie. I think it was the Loews or the Metropolitan or the Kirby Theater or the Majestic. Old, beautiful movie houses which is . . . I think my appreciation for those houses started then and had a lot to do with the way we developed our company later. I mean, for two bits, 25 cents, you could get 2 hotdogs. It would cost you another 15 cents to go to the Saturday morning movie downtown. We had a great time.
DG: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
AJB: You know, I am not sure I ever thought about it. I don’t remember thinking about it. I think I just wanted to grow up. But I don’t think I had any . . . no lawyers, no firemen, no policemen or any of those things. I sold. As a kid, a 9, 10, 11 year old kid, I sold Liberty and the Saturday Evening Post. They usually went together. I made my rounds on Saturday and I went door to door and you could make a buck here and a buck there. I don’t know, I guess that established me as a salesperson maybe but I do not think I ever thought about . . . in fact, I do not think I ever thought about the end of the week other than the weekend. I think day to day, it was about all I could handle at the time.
DG: What were you good at besides selling? What were you good at when you were a kid?
AJB: I was good at sports. I played a lot of baseball and tag football and basketball. I was not very good at basketball. But I was pretty good, I was fast and I enjoyed the sports. As I became a teenager, I enjoyed dancing, dating a little bit. Then, you used to date meaning you and a girl and 5 or 6 other guys with assigned dates would go out. Now, it is “the gang is going.” But I enjoyed anything that was personal, any kind of music and dancing and any relationships I had with any people or all the people. My fellow students and whoever the lady of the day was at that time.
DG: Why did you decide to go to Texas?
AJB: Probably because they were the only ones that would have me! In those days, they had to take you and I remember not knowing until I was in line to graduate high school when I was going to graduate high school. It was a tough go for me. But University . . . I do not think I even considered anything else, and I think because my crowd, that is where you went – you went from junior high to high school Johnson, to San Jacinto and then to University of Texas. I do not think I even thought about anything else. I am glad I made the choice. I enjoyed being a student there but I have also enjoyed . . . I got my first touch of what I would end up doing in my professional life there. I met my wife there as a freshman and we dated 4 years and got married April of my senior year, and her senior year as well. So, everything good happened to me there.
DG: Now you said you thought you had your first taste of what you eventually did. What happened at University of Texas?
AJB: Well, I became active on campus and, you know, cowboys, friars and all those good honorary societies, and I really used to enjoy the work I did on campus. As a junior, we had a weekend event called Greek Week. Greek Week was all the fraternities and all the Greek sororities would get together and they would have week long seminars, dances, the things you would expect to happen during a Greek week. We talked about our problems and so forth. And I was chairman of that. As a chairman, we booked a lot of acts. And I had never booked an act before but I remember booking the Billy May Band. Some people won’t remember them. Most people won’t remember the Billy May Band but it was all saxophones and clarinets – such a great band. And they had a 16-year-old singer. Her name was Eydie Gorme. Can you imagine sending a 16-year-old girl out with 25 musicians? A tough deal. Anyway, but they played and I had a relationship . . . I did not have a relationship with Eydie Gorme then but I had one with she and her husband, later we booked them throughout the state. But that was my first taste of really booking an act, organizing a party, organizing the menu, the things that went with it. And that is what I ended up doing, so to speak, in the years to come. It was quite a weekend and it was something I thoroughly enjoyed.
DG: You sort of hinted that maybe you were not that great of a student when you were in high school but did you find yourself as a student when you got to UT?
AJB: I found myself in my sophomore year wondering about whether they were about ready to kick my tail out of school, so I’d better come to the party, I guess. My parents were not wealthy but they, in fact, were sending me to school. And so, it got to be a little bit of a problem with them, and not to perform really was not acceptable. So, later on, my last 2 years, I went to work a little bit during the summer. When I started paying for it, I think I also got a little bit more serious. But it was my sophomore, junior and senior years, I got better and better and the last 4-5 semesters, I did quite well.
DG: What did you major in?
AJB: Marketing in the business school.
DG: So you graduated from University of Texas with a degree in marketing and business and why come back to Houston?
AJB: Well, first of all, there was a space of about 6 months between the time I graduated and the time I went in the service. So I came back to Houston for that period of time and I had a long time to think about what I was going to do for a living. I did a variety of things when I came back. I started working in life insurance and I started learning that business, not knowing what else I would do. And I spent 6 months . . . that is where the family was so we had to . . . we knew we were going in. Shirley and I, we knew we were going in. We got our orders . . . by the way, going back to Bergstrom by Austin. But we got our orders and I was doing a report in December. So, I had a period of 5-6 months which was sort of no man’s land, and I do not think I thought about going anywhere else. But I came back. We had a group of friends that were in Houston that we went to school with as well. So we were just biding our time until we went into the service. After the service is when I had a couple of opportunities: one was to stay in the service. I had performed pretty well in the service. I went in as an ROTC graduate and a second lieutenant, but I took it seriously and I did well. They encouraged me to stay and I got very close to staying. But we decided no, we needed to go back and raise our family. I came back to Houston. I was still studying life insurance. It seemed like I knew everybody in Houston so once the choice about life insurance was made, where we would set up shop would be in Houston because I knew so many people here.
DG: I want to go back just a little bit to that Air Force decision, the ROT decision in school. We have talked to enough people who made that choice in college to know that it was a different era and there was a different attitude about ROTC back then. Share with us if you can what it was like on campus to make the decision to go into ROTC. This is well before Vietnam, after World War II. What was the role of ROTC?
DG: Well, first, it was the Korean conflict. So that was going on. There were 2 motivations. First of all, you were motivated because of the war in Korea. And we all experienced World War II not as soldiers but as young teenagers or adolescents, of course. And so, you felt a commitment to do something, to be prepared to do something for that effort. But I think maybe the overriding effort was you had better stay in school or they are going to draft you and they will send you to Korea. So, a lot of people had . . . they had quite a core (corps??) of ROTC cadets. They had Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force. So they had quite a core of students that were in ROTC that knew they were going in but wanted to get their education first and then go in, of course, as a commissioned officer.
DG: O.K., so then you did your time in the Air Force. Where were you stationed, the whole time in Bergstrom?
DG : And then you came back and you started your career in life insurance?
AJB: That is correct.
DG: What year was that then?
AJB: That was in 1957.
DG: And what was Houston like in 1957?
AJB: It was robust. It was exciting. Things were happening. We were starting to get athletic teams. Of course, I came a little bit later but talking about them, it was a major city, and you could feel the excitement of the city. Back then, you know, you could call someone Judge Hofheinz or you could call a number of major oil players and you would pick up the phone and call that number and they would answer the phone. And they would listen to you for a few minutes maybe but they would listen to you. You could not do that at many places. It was really a small major . . . small in that people were friendly, they wanted to hear new ideas. That is what it was – it was a city of new ideas, new thoughts, acceptance of you for what you were. Sometimes they threw you out of their office after the first 15 minutes but you got in the office, and that did not happen in many places.
DG: Did you have a sense that the growth was coming from the oil industry back then or was it something else?
AJB: I had a sense that Houston was based as the oil patch and I did not know much about the oil industry but you knew the suppliers and you knew that the oil companies, that the product . . . I think it was $2.50 a barrel or something, maybe less . . . but you felt their presence. Medical was starting which became a major industry here but it was just starting. You were not as aware of what that was going to be at the Medical Center. Our medical school was in Galveston. There was not another UT medical school in Houston. I do not know when Baylor came. Baylor came in about this time maybe because I had a couple of brother-in-laws that were at Jeff Davis. So, the medical industry was starting. But what really you could feel was when every other week, you would go out Memorial and they were tearing up a little bit more of the streets and building more of these small subdivisions, or you would go to Meyerland. I mean, my wife and I, our first house was on a great street. It was not in Meyerland but it was a couple of sections west of Meyerland. And there was a big ditch 1 block from our house that sort of separated us from the corn fields. I used to go over at night and pick corn. Honest to God. I mean, it was a block and a half. I would take my young boys, we would go pick 4-5 ears of corn, go home and Shirley would cook them. But every week, it was another 2 blocks or 4 blocks that they were preparing for homes. So I think for me, that was the sense of the growth, is the fact that you would go home one day and they are building a house in a corn field, 1 or 2 blocks from you. That was pretty impressive.
DG: As a young family in the late 1950s, what kinds of things did you worry about? What were the issues?
AJB: First of all, you worried about having a nice place to live and feeding your family but, do you know what? It never occurred to me that I had to worry about educating my kids. I just knew somehow they were going to get educated. So I never thought too much tough selling life insurance and not being too concerned about the future. That tells you why I got out of it, doesn’t it? But the important thing . . . then, entertainment for these kids, it was you opened the door in the morning and they are gone, and they will come back for lunch and they are gone. They played baseball in the street. We had great neighbors and all the kids, or everybody had the same number of kids or the same age of the kids always had . . . somebody was the same age within a house or two. And it was just amazing the freedom they had. Now, you know, you feel uncomfortable about letting them out of the house or letting them stay alone. Our kids were like everybody else’s kids. We had 2 boys and we adopted a little girl a little bit later but, I mean, these boys just ran and played. And they ran and played with the rest of the neighbors. You never worried about where they were so much or if they had anything to eat. They would come when they were hungry. So their entertainment . . . I did not think about security. I did not think about my wife was home . . . I worked several nights a week but my wife was home and I knew they were well taken care of and well fed. So I do not think I really concerned myself until they got themselves in trouble, whether they got kicked out of school one day or elementary school or they did not do their homework and the teacher sent a piece of paper home. That was the only thing that I really got involved with. I do not think I ever planned anything for them. We would go to Galveston crabbing and we would go to the beach, just like I did as a kid. We would go to Keemah. So, that was our entertainment. I guess it was just the way I am. I never really sat down and planned my kids’ education or where we were going to live 5 years from now or any of those things. I just took it a day at a time. I think my wife and I agreed that she should be the worrier, so she worried and I said, “Yes, dear. Yes, dear.”
DG: That’s great. Now, late 1950s/early 1960s in Houston and you are in the South – there were people who described that period in terms of racial conflicts, in terms of the social changes. Were you aware of that from where you lived, from where you saw things in Houston?
AJB: Yes, of course, I was aware of it. Unfortunately as a young person, there were colored fountains and colored restrooms. I have often thought about it and am a little bit disappointed in myself because I do not remember being aware that, hey, that is wrong. I did not become aware of that until I became an adult and really started at the University of Texas, I guess. When I was at University, the only African Americans that could come on campus and go to school were if there were no other opportunities like law school. They would accept a few students in law school because there weren’t any comparable law schools. But other than that, they weren’t accepted. Now, that is wrong, of course. I know that is wrong but I am not sure I saw it as wrong until I got to the University and there was a movement on campus that that should be opened up to all students. And so, I was involved in campus so I got into that movement. In the early 1960s I think is when Houston opened all their counters to before there were whites only and black only sections. So they opened them. And as I recall, there is something else about Houston that you really had to feel good about . . . it is my understanding, and I was not part of this, but it is my understanding that the people from Federated, Foleys and Walgreens and the other major stores that had fountains within their cafes or restaurants, or we used to call them fountains, decided, ‘O.K., guys, Monday we are going to desegregate. No signs. No nothing. Just it is open to everyone.’ And I think they went to the black community and said, ‘We are going to do this Monday. If there are people that wish to come and eat, have them do it Monday so that it will be open, obviously opened.’ And that is exactly what happened. And so, that period in our history, when we were making the moves towards integration was doing quite well and the city leadership just got together and said, ‘This is how it is going to be.’ They probably went to that hotel, the Lamar Hotel, where all the giants used to go and decide what the rest of us were going to do, just decided it is time we do this and we do it.
DG: Just for the record, I want to add that when you graduated from University of Texas, you received the Mike Flynt Award for Outstanding Graduating Senior for all the achievements there.
AJB: Yes, I did. It was quite a thrilling night for me when they presented me with the award. Mike Flynt was a young man that went to the University of Texas during early World War II and he was killed. He was quite an outstanding guy. He was killed during the war. And so, they awarded this particular award to the outstanding graduating senior. It had a lot of things . . . obviously, it was not for all scholarship. I was not graded too highly in that but as a matter of the commitment, you had the University as relates to extracurricular activities and that type of thing.
DG: Did you attend SMU for graduate school?
AJB: Yes. During that period when I got out of waiting to go to the service, SMU had an insurance graduate class and I think I went for 4 weeks. That was a period of the course. And I was always going back to get a masters but I just never got there.
DG: So now, working on up and you are selling life insurance in Houston. You have a young family. You showed the aptitude for selling life insurance.
AJB: I sold over one million dollars a year for 9 years, a million dollar round table. The biggest year I ever had I think was $11,000 or $12,000 in earnings. I was able to sell it because I knew a lot of people and a lot of people chose to buy their insurance from me. I was not a brilliant insurance agent. I could no more compete now – not even now – 25 years ago. Now, you have to have a stock license and there are so many ramifications. Then, it was just . . . they used to call it “Taking them down the Primrose path.” “Do you want your wife to be able to live comfortably if you die?” “Yes.” “Do you want your children to be educated?” “Yes.” “Do you want to buy any?” “No.” Everything was yes, yes, yes until I got to the last question, and that was the important one. So I found it difficult to really beat on anybody to buy life insurance, and sometimes to be a really outstanding salesman, you have to do that and you have to do it because the need is so great. But I could not do that. I could not make them smell the lilies. But I was successful at it to an extent. I never made a lot of money but you would make a million dollar roundtable and that seemed to be a plateau at some point.
DG: Fortunately, another opportunity was about to come knocking. Tell us about the opening of the Astrodome and what it was like in Houston when the Astrodome opened.
AJB: Well, first of all, the process they went through to build it and Judge Hofheinz – he was _____ the 1950s or 1960s. He decided he could build an air conditioned palace like the Astrodome and they could function. Of course, nobody believed him. They thought he was crazy. But he did the necessary things to get the taxpayers to agree to, I think it was $16 million or something to build the Astrodome. And he bought the baseball team, bought the bus, I believe, and then got the franchise for the Astros, played at a temporary stadium, but he was a guy that could get anything done. Sidney Schlenker (sp?) and I early on decided that is going to be a great stadium. What will it be good for? We used to talk about it. I was selling life insurance. Sydney was at the bank. And we just used to talk about it. Then, when the Dome was getting ready to open, Sydney and I spoke and said, “Why don’t we form a company on the side and do some events out there? Maybe we can make it work.” In fact, the way we really got our foot in the door was that Sydney was in New York at a banking convention, he was coming home and he was on this _____, I guess, whoever was providing the service then, and Judge Hofheinz was on the plane . . . he worked around his magic and found the guy that was sitting next to him. He traded tickets with him. He gave him, I think, $100. And so, he sat next to Judge Hofheinz all the way from New York to Houston. And in that 4 hours or however much time it took, 4 or 4-1/2 hours, he and the Judge came to terms about what could go into the Dome, a lot of which Sydney and I had discussed previously. So by the time he got there, the Judge was totally enthralled. You had to know Sydney to know you could be enthralled with Sydney. And so, we felt we were in pretty good shape when the plane landed and Sydney had this long conversation. At the same time, Houston National Bank where Sydney was working them was helping promote the boat show. They were doing a lot of boat financing. That was their interest. And the Judge was building his Dome with the Astro Arena and the Astro Convention Hall. And so, Sydney was able to convince the boat show to move out to the new building. And, of course, that even locked us in stronger with the Judge. So our first really relationship as a tenant in the Dome was an event called Skippers Jamboree which was in the Dome prior to the Astrodome officially opening. And after that, it was the boat show and we built on that as the years went by. The Judge was Houston. He was a promoter. He was a guy that, at 26, I think, was a judge. He had a radio station. I mean, he was a promoter and he promoted himself, he promoted Houston, he promoted the Dome. I mean, to sell that concept, and there wasn’t anybody that wasn’t touched by this man. He could do anything you could imagine – he would do it. And, you know, it is much like the City of Houston. New and exciting and never been done before. This guy would listen to you no matter what you had to say. Throw you out 50 minutes but he would listen to you. He was Houston. At that time, he represented the newness and the opportunities and what could be done. Yes, that is a good comparison, I think.
DG: For Houstonians, the Astrodome was a big deal. The eighth wonder. People came from out of town and you wanted to show them something in Houston, you always took them by the Astrodome. That perception is lost on people nowadays. I mean, it is sitting over there – we are trying to figure out whether we should tear it down or preserve it. What was it like just being a citizen of Houston when they opened the Astrodome and that type of pride?
AJB: Well, first of all, you are right – people did come by the hundreds of thousands, just to see this crazy thing and how it worked. And the Judge, by the way, had a tour that he had prepared for and I think they were putting 100,000, 200,000 people through on tour 10 years after it was opened, like it was just a brand new building. But people came here to see the Dome and they would also see what was in it as well. They did not necessarily – I am not sure which was the biggest attraction, whether it was just to see the building or see how it performed. And then, the Judge had the problem of making it perform. But I think that it was every bit as big an attraction as NASA became some years later. I guarantee all of Louisiana came. Every man, woman and child. I think it enhanced our convention business. It enhanced the desirability to have conventions in this city. It was on everybody’s agenda. Everybody’s agenda. What are you going to do? So, the doctors come for the Texas convention or the National convention – the first thing on the list – a private tour of the Astrodome. Just on everybody’s list. It was well promoted. It was the thing to do in the city of Houston. And up until then . . . I am trying to think a little bit now . . . up until then, there wasn’t any one thing that was so crazy or so outstanding that they went to.
DG: So you did some promotion when you were in college and now you did a boat show. Give us a time line, give us the evolution. I mean, certainly there is no guarantee that because you do a boat show, that you would end up where you were 10-15 years later.
AJB: And by the way, we did not plan it that way either. What we did, the Dome opened in 1966, I believe. We put the boat show in . . .that was the first boat show I think in January. And, by the way, I think that was the first year of baseball in the Dome as well. They had a temporary stadium. They moved that in. And we needed to find other events. The Judge beat on us to find other events. So we did a home show. These were all flat shows where people paid to get in. They would sell exhibit space to builders and to plumbing contractors and fixture people. The boat show, of course, all the boating retailers from this region would come to Houston and did maybe 20%, 25% of their total business at the boat show. So it became a major . . . and, by the way, when you compare the old boat show which was downtown at the old auditorium, compare that to the new boat show in this huge facility, it did what they wanted it to do – it provided an opportunity to sell boats or to sell homes or to sell plumbing supplies. So we did those kinds of shows. Then we decided we went back to the old idea – if you take something that was outside, as more of a participant activity and you brought it inside where it was air-conditioned, inside where it was not dusty and dirty, inside where the women had clean restrooms, would it work? So, we took a destruction derby. Houston had Jack Kochman and his Hell Drivers and they drove cars on 2 wheels and all of that stuff. And so, we said, let’s bring it into the Dome. That was our first other kind of show we did at the Dome. Our ticket prices, as I recall, were $1.50, $2.50 and $3.50. We had all the disc jockeys, all the television and radio guys doing a destruction derby as a featured event of the event. Of course, and all they could talk about on the radio was, ‘Boy, are we going to be out there,’ and people kept buying tickets and buying tickets.
The first show we did . . . Sydney was quite an idea man . . . we decided we needed a handle. One of the drivers was named Sam Anderson, I think. Anyway, we said, ‘We need to make a hero out of somebody so let’s change the name to Swedeson,’ and we called him the Swedish Daredevil. So, we started hitting the radio, ‘Come see Johannes Swedeson, the Swedish daredevil.’ And it was amazing. All the drivers were introduced and when he was introduced, the crowd went crazy. They really thought he was . . . it was quite an event but it was typical of what you did to sell the event, and we did quite well. And we went from 1 night to 2 nights the following year. We also brought in motorcycles that year. One was TT and flat track which is one kind of racing. Another one was the supercross which is a different race. So in the first quarter, which is when there was no baseball and there weren’t any competing events, we did a thrill show, we did 2 motorcycle events the first quarter of the year I meant and eventually went into a truck and tractor pull. So we did those events in the Dome in the first quarter – January, February and March – other than the rodeo came out in the middle. That was a problem, too. We decided to share some dirt with the rodeo to build a track and, of course, their dirt was sort of polluted. And so, our motorcycle guys – only 1 year though – they would fall. It never occurred to us that this was going to be a problem but it was a problem. So the rodeo had 3 weeks in the middle when it was shorter at that time and we had the rest of that 3 month period. And it was really the stable part of our business.
DG: I want to put a fine point on the history. When you talk about doing those first shows, when you say, “we put on a show,” I mean, you got on the phone and had to sell the ad space, you got on the phone and had to organize where the booths went and who was coming. I mean, how much staff did you have in those early days?
AJB: Well, first of all, we had seasonal staff but we had probably 3 permanent people besides Sydney and me and then we had seasonal staff that would come on during that 3 month period where it preceded a month and take a month after. And everybody wanted to be in show business so it was easy to find some pretty competent people. And we did sell the space. We sold the ticket. The Dome was the landlord. They were the landlord. We were a tenant. And Jack O’Connell, I don’t know whether you know it, well, Jack O’Connell is quite a guy. He moved to Houston in the middle 1960s. He was from Chicago. The judge hired him to run the facilities. He would come in and he would say, “Look, I’ll tell you what I’ll do – go from 1 to 2 nights. We are making a little money now. And 2 nights, maybe stretch it out.” And he would say, “I am giving you the building free.” I said, “That’s great.” He said, “But I want half the deal.” And so, he was always right. We went from one night to two nights, did great business. He got half the deal and a couple of years later, we got to go back and buy it from him. So it was not strictly a landlord/tenant situation. They were really concerned about what kind of events we did, were they professional and how many people we could draw because remember, they got parking, they got concessions, they got merchandising. Those things we did not get any piece of. Their business was per caps, their business was if you get them through the turnstile, they will spend money when they get in and that was all theirs. And we went from there to bringing some music in. There were a few disasters. The Dome had horrible acoustics at the beginning. They improved them. They are better now but for a while, the echo was just unbelievable. And, by the way, the rodeo was doing their thing at this time. Brought a lot of people there. So it really sold the facilities as a great place to entertain certain types. We had bullfights. We had bloodless bullfights. And they did great the first year. The second year, they did not do so great. The third year was a disaster. So you tried a lot of different things.
DG: What was the strangest thing you did? Looking back, what was the one that seemed like the oddest idea? It probably made sense at the time but what seemed like the oddest idea looking back?
AJB: We did a British tournament and tattoo which was an event in which it was a British company and there were military people and they would run out with telephone poles and 3 guys would hold the poles, the other would go up and down the poles. They would bear shoot off the gondola. They did all these things. Marching bands. And in this Dome, we did it for 2 nights. We had 2,800 people the first night and I think we had 3,400 because the second night was Saturday night. 3,400 people the second night. It was an absolute disaster. It was one of the times that we damn near went busted. It was just a miscalculation. All the thrill shows – people really hurt themselves. A couple perished. And it was totally demoralizing when something like this went wrong. You don’t practice . . . Evel Knievel does not practice his motorcycle jumps. You just calculate it and you do it. It is not something you can afford to practice because it does not work that way. And we had some difficult accidents. The biggest event we did was Evel. I read about Evel Knievel in the newspaper and that he was jumping . . . he did the Caesars jump over Caesars fountain in Vegas. I found his number, called him, somebody answered the phone, and he said to me . . . I said, “I want to speak to Evel Knievel.” “What about?” I said, “Well, I am here at the Astrodome and I think we would like to do an event.” He said, “Well, you will have to talk to Sam Schultz, his agent.” So I said, “Where do I get him?” He gave me a number. I called that number. The guy says, “This is Sam Schultz.” I said, “Sam, I would like to talk to you about hiring Evel.” “Well, I don’t know.” Finally, we negotiated a deal. Of course, Sam Schultz and Evel were the same person. And I found out this later, of course. This is what our business was like. Can you imagine going home and telling your wife what you did for a living? It was very difficult. She thought I had lost my mind! They shot most of the Evel Knievel movie here. Shirley and I, when Evel came in with his wife and his 2 boys, a daughter and 2 boys . . . He rode in a trailer and they stayed in that trailer. It was a beautiful thing. I said, “Shirley, take Evel’s wife shopping or take her to lunch. Entertain her. So we walked in and my wife was quite a lady, but she could have a mouth on her. We walked in and she says . . . we introduced around and she says, “Come on, let’s you and I go to lunch. We will go shopping or something.” And Evel stood up and said, “She can’t go anywhere. She has to clean the trailer.” Well, that did not set well with my wife and my wife looked at him and said, “I’m taking your wife for lunch. You clean the trailer,” and grabbed my hand and walked out. I mean, he was so flabbergasted. I should have warned him, or warned her. I am not sure which one. My wife did not get involved much but on that occasion, she had something to say. That was probably the biggest thrill show we ever had. We sold every seat in 2 nights. He made both jumps. He became famous for doing what he did worse than anybody else. He became famous for crashing. I mean, if he did not crash, they went away disappointed.
DG: So, describe then in as much detail as you want to, the evolution of thrill shows and destruction derbies and the Astrodome. You formed _____. How does it grow then from the Astrodome and those limited things to the company . . .
AJB: You know, it grew with facilities. In the late 1960s/early 1970s . . . well, the Superdome in New Orleans went under construction, I think, in 1971 or 1972 – opened in 1975 -- well, we were experts in putting events in domes. There was only one and we were the only ones that put events in it so we were sort of, you know, when you get 500 miles from home, you are a genius? So we went and pitched Louisiana on some things and they were considering it to open the Dome or whatever and we sat down with _____ and Louisiana Southern and talked about their big game of the year and they would play it one year in _____ 12,000 seats and one year in Baton Rouge where Southern was; you know, 14,000, 15,000 seats. We negotiated a deal with them. They had very bright people in their universities that could see what it could be – this major school in the South, two black schools in the South. And we pitched them about starting to buy U Classic, put a name on it, play it in New Orleans. And it is still going on today, by the way. We did that. The first year, we wanted to do it in 1974. The Dome was opening in 1975. We also got the contract to do the first 20 events in the Dome and we wanted to put it in the Dome in 1975 but we wanted to start it in 1974. And we went out . . . we decided we would go get Tulane Stadium. And, of course, they looked at us and they said, “You will never get Tulane Stadium. Put 2 black schools in Tulane Stadium out at the University,” and it was a pretty affluent white group that lived around the stadium. We went to the president, and this was their last game prior to moving into the Dome as well. The Tulane-LSU game. And LSU that year. So, the stadium was available to us and they were going to tear it down when the season was over. The president said, “I think that is the greatest idea I have ever heard. I can get some revenue, one, and this will be a tremendous statement for this university and for this city and for this state to make.” He said, “We’ll do it.” We did the first game there. Sold 70,000 tickets. That was the Sugar Bowl. It was the most glorious thing you could imagine. The universities made, I think, $60,000, $70,000 each, we did well, and I mean, it was just glorious. No problems. No problems. The residential areas around the stadium, they had their security and saw horses. In fact, the group that we met with representing the community prior to the game, we went and met with them after the game and they said, “We would much rather have this game than the LSU/Tulane bunch.” It was glorious. This game, at that time, and I think it still does, provides an alumni return not to the universities but all the black universities. You go to Southern University and you go to Southern or one of the other black universities because if you were black, you could not go anywhere else, but all these students that had admission and so forth went up East to get their masters degree or their majors or to get something that they could not get at these universities. Every one of them, whether it was Florida A&M or whether it was Howard, all of those university students, this was their alumni, this was their homecoming. For 10 years, we sold out every hotel room in New Orleans and that is about 12,000 rooms. We had special trains coming from the West and from the East and from the Midwest. It was absolutely fantastic.
The City of New Orleans just loved it because there was so much money coming in and, of course, the citizens of New Orleans and of the state, and of all of the black colleges – this was then their homecoming. I don’t know whether you want a few stories but I will tell you one. We did this about 8-9 years and we also did . . . we were in concerts as well. And when Edwin Edwards was governor, we did a Willie Nelson concert at the Arena in Baton Rouge and he would have them at his house because that weekend was the same weekend as his birthday. So Willie would do a show at the Arena and then he would come to his house the next night and do a show. And we, of course, promoted the show in the Arena and made arrangements for the act to play the Governor’s party. I got a call from the Governor’s assistant saying that “The Governor wants you to be sure and come this year. He has something he wants to talk to you about.” I said, “Well, that is nice. I will come.” So I did go and I was at the Governor’s mansion and his assistant came and got me and said, “The Governor would like to talk to you,” and I went into the Governor’s office and the Governor said, “Alan, we’ve got a little bit of a problem.” He said, “This game you do, this bayou classic is a problem for me because the black community wants to be more a part of it. They feel like it should be a black promoted event rather than promoted by your company.” He said, “And by the way, my white supporters, they don’t like the fact that this is a bigger game than the LSU/Tulane game. So, for political reasons, we need to put it in the hands of our black community, of the universities really.” He said, “So, we want to buy the event from you.” I said, “Well, Governor, it is not for sale.” He said, “Let me ‘splain it to you. It is for sale and we are going to buy it. We only have to talk about the price.” Well, that day, we sold the event to the universities and it has been going on, they have done a great job and it has gone on ever since. Televised. The same marching bands are absolutely entertaining within themselves. Our success, our expansion was tied to some of these. The Superdome, for one. We became an expert in Dome presentations in Houston. Now, we were in New Orleans, opened the Silver Dome in Detroit, the King Dome in Seattle – we were dome experts. And from that, on the West Coast, we went into stadiums, Angels Stadium. We did thrill shows and motorcycle races and those things. So we expanded what we did at the Astrodome and the other facilities. In 1973, they started talking about a new arena in Houston. It became the Summit. And Kenneth Schnitzer was beating the bushes to get it out at his development on 59. I am not even sure what they call it.
DG: Greenway Plaza.
AJB: Yes, Greenway Plaza. He wanted to build the Summit there. A lot of people wanted downtown and he knew we were in the promotional business -- he said, “Alan, we are doing a survey about building the Summit in my development and I would like to send the accounting firm that does this survey to you to interview you.” And I said, “Great.” Kenneth was a super guy. He really was a major part of this community and “Houston Proud” was his whole concept, when we went into, I think it was the 1980s, when things turned bad and he started this program of you could not call anybody without them saying “Houston Proud.” By the way, that is something else that makes Houston very special. People rise to the occasion. When there is a problem, when there is an opportunity, people stand up and are counted. Kenneth was one of these. Things weren’t wonderful for him them because the downturn affected him as much as anybody else but he found the time, the energy and the money to start this Houston Proud program that just caught fire. Continental used to say, when you landed in Houston, “Be careful of the heat.” They stopped saying things like that. They started saying “We are Houston Proud – enjoy our city.” Real good. Anyway, he wanted to build this arena. We were interviewed and he did not have to tell me what he wanted me to say. So I assumed I was to say that it worked better there than it would downtown. We gave them numbers, factual numbers not that we experienced but factual numbers that we knew other parts of the country had experienced. And what an arena out there would do for the city and that type of thing. Most arenas, as you know, are in the downtown areas. Well, when that was built, we started doing music concerts. We started talking . . . that is how we got into the concert business. It was necessary to really expand our talent to book the acts. I had never booked rock and roll acts. I was not even really impressed with the music – Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller and those kind of guys, Billy May – that was my rock and roll. So I had to go out and find the talent to do that, and we did. About 5 days of major concerts at the opening of the Superbowl, I met a young man, Louie Messina, who was a promoter in that area and sold radio time. And he helped me. I fell in love with him. This guy has a gut for music. He is just super. This is the guy I wanted to run my concert department. So I hired Louie. He had a wife and a young baby and I think he moved to Houston. This was in 1975. And he moved to Houston with his wife and baby. I think I paid him $1,000 a month, which is more than he was making in New Orleans. And he warned me, he said, “You are going to lose a lot of money before you make any.” He told me but I did not necessarily believe it, but he was right. And he and I, we worked together until 1998 when we sold the company and we are very close friends now. He is still in Houston. He has a huge practice promoting country western music now. If I was lucky at anything, I was lucky with the people that I hired. If I have any talents, it was a talent of picking people because they made my company. They made this company. Anyway, so we started in the music business because the Summit.
All of a sudden, we had a building available to us and so that is where we got in the music company and, of course, we took that all over the state and went into the region, then went on a national basis. And I think when we sold the company in 1998-1999, I think we were doing like 3,000 concerts a year. We started building amphitheaters. When we went in the concert business, again, the building owned the parking, the building owned the concession, the building owned the merchandise and the ticketing, and we were limited to whatever we could sell the tickets for. It got thinner and thinner and thinner – the risk got big because you had one bad would take care of 4 good ones. So we decided . . . Brian Becker, our oldest son, came up with the idea, why don’t we build amphitheaters where we could control everything? And we did. We built The Woodlands with George Mitchell. We built the one in Dallas at the State Fairgrounds. We built one in Nashville. We built 12 of them, about 12 of them. And that way, we had the concessions, we had box seats, we had parking, we had other revenue streams that made it a worthwhile business and, of course, contributed to the growth of the business. In 1981, the Sanger Theater and the Magestic Theater, the Magestic Theater in San Antonio and the Sanger Theater in New Orleans, became available. There were old movie houses just like we had and, for some reason, we tore ours down. These are the theaters – what we did, they were primarily kept in operation but then they would close down the . . . and they would take these big movie houses and divide them in four, four different screens. But the idea of renovating them was off foot. So we made a deal with the Sanger in New Orleans and made a deal with the Magestic. Bought the Magestic, as a matter of fact. And we started doing Broadway shows. And the first ones were in New Orleans. And then, we went to Nashville and went to Memphis and came to San Antonio. It is interesting – the way we really grew our theatrical business, we got interested because of these theaters. The way we grew it is that promoters would sell series – Columbus, Ohio, Cincinnati, all these places – and then would get about halfway through the season and then draw on their ticket money. So they would end up with 3 shows to go and no more ticket money. So their patrons would either lose their money or somebody would step in. Well, we went to all these places and bought out the promoter and made the tickets good for the patrons. And at that moment, Miles Wilkin, who ran out the Astro division, and I made a deal. Every ticket we sold, every dollar we got for tickets would go in trust accounts. We would never touch the money. We played like it was not ours. We may have been the only ones that did that but we had a feeling of security knowing that nobody would have to come bail us out, and we never violated that. But that is how we grew our theatrical business. We opened offices in New York, on the West Coast, in Chicago, and we ended up doing about 30 markets and we would be partners with the buildings. Our partner in California was the building in Orange County. It just worked out . . . we found a formula that really worked well. So we found ourselves in that time in the theatrical business, live Broadway, and by the way, now the road financially is more important than New York to New Broadway shows.
DG: I want to spend just another moment on that topic. This idea of Broadway shows touring the country was what your company created. There was no way to bring Broadway to Houston, let alone smaller markets.
AJB: Well, they weren’t producing shows of any quality that would come to Houston. Every once in a while, one would come, and they did have Chicago and Detroit and some of the bigger cities in the East and they had the West Coast, but between there, there was nothing - nothing to sustain a Broadway company from moving across the country.
DG: So you went from motorcycle shows and sporting events and then the music business and now you’ve got theater and Broadway and all this stuff. And in every case, you say the expansion was so the facilities were one opportunity that led to the other? Did you ever have a sense of unmanageable risk, of taking on a little bit more maybe than you were comfortable with or were you comfortable with the risk?
AJB: Generally, our length of an event conceived, crews going on the road, Broadway shows coming out of New York – by the time you made the commitment and by the time the commitment was fulfilled, 6 months – other than the amphitheater, there were not any major investments. Now that does not mean you cannot get hurt because we frequently got hurt, but it was short-lived. So it was not a huge investment over a long period of time – it was an investment over a short period of time. That was not true in the amphitheaters. The amphitheaters, they average anywhere from $8-12 million. And that was a long commitment. But that may be the only one we really had except the theaters that we helped renovate. So it wasn’t always a concern. When the major groups – Rolling Stones, U2, those types of groups – started coming out of Europe and Michael Cole who had a company in Toronto, when he would offer them $30 million for the tour and he wants all the tickets, all the concessions, whatever there was to buy, he would buy it for the group for $30 million and wrote them a check. We never quite had the adventure in us to take a part of that because he would go around and say, “Do you want a part of it?” And we really did not. It was scary, for me. So we really did not do that. I wish we had. I just did not see that. And, you know, banking was not really open to us. You would go to the banker and one of the first questions they asked you . . . “O.K., so tell me about your business.” You said, “Well, we are going to pay $30 million to the Rolling Stones.” “O.K., and when do you pay it?” “We will pay them up front.” “Oh, and what do they agree to do for that?” “They agree to play all over the world for us” “Well, what if they don’t.” “Well, they will.” “What if they don’t?” “Well, they do.” It just got nowhere, absolutely nowhere. You could imagine trying to sell the thing. It was like selling the Brooklyn Bridge. I mean, you could not get them to understand that the money went in escrow. “But who had the money?” “The agencies.” “The agencies had the money?” “Yes. But they won’t let it go.” “Are you sure of that?” It was just difficult. So we had trouble getting financing. We had to finance the first two amphitheaters ourselves, then they became a little bit . . . then we got involved with Sony and Hizinger and they put up some money and we were able to build more amphitheaters. But it was a hard sell to get a banker to think . . . plus, in the 1960s and early 1970s, a lot of the acts did not show up. But to try to convince a banker that you were going to pay $30 million up front to a rock and roll band, these crazies? Are you out of your mind?
DG: The entertainment business is New York and LA, a little bit of Chicago maybe – when did you have a sense that Houston, as represented by your company, had sort of earned the seat at the table? Was there a single show? A single event? Was it one of the Tony awards on the shelf behind you? What was the moment where you said, “You know, I feel like we have kind of earned our place.”
AJB: Well, the way we grew was a Houston promotional company that grew into a state, they grew into a region. We knew that the business was in New York and LA. That is where the headquarters were. That is where all the agents were. That is where all the producers were. We knew that. And I guess when we made the decision to open offices in New York and to move our theatrical vision in New York to open offices in the West Coast and move some of our music to the West Coast, that is the event that bought us a seat at the table, so to speak. I was not going to move. I knew this town and I loved this town and it has been so good to me as it relates to what I have been able to accomplish here. I was not going to move. And so, we kept our administrative offices here. We kept our financial offices here and we moved people. We moved 3 people to New York in 2 offices and when we sold the company, we had, I think, $18,000 feet and 300 employees in New York, but we got there slowly and one step at a time. But I think when the decision was made, we can’t do it all from here. We are not going to move headquarters. They are not going to move me out. So when we made the decision to open offices in New York, take some of our top people and send them there and do the same thing on the West Coast is when we . . . and for the motor sports, it went to Chicago.
DG: Well, let’s try to put some meat on the bone. When you made the decision to sell what you had built, what was it that you had built at that point, and how ever you want to describe it in terms of all you did or . . .
AJB: I cannot tell you the volume we did. I don’t know. But I can tell you that we were doing over 6,000 events and the market was such that it was crazy. It was absolutely . . . this kind of position not be a public company, but a gentleman in New York who had done this before the radio business wanted to roll up a company. And we, unlike the other promoters in New York and California and Boston – whoever they were – we were really more transparent. We kept records, I mean, on everything. We had files, we had contracts, we had things that most promoters did not have. There are scraps of paper that they wanted to throw away. I was not a rock and roller. I was too old for that. At this time – 10 years ago – I was 65 years old. I really believe we had to have systems, and we did. We had in-house counsel, we had CPAs running our financial departments. It wasn’t out of your back pocket like it used to be, that I never experienced. So they really needed us because in every department, we had people who were educated to it, that were important to it, that knew what the recordkeeping was and for them to roll up all of us individual promoters into a public company. They needed those kind of people. And so, they offered us so much money. And, by the way, I rethink that all the time but they offered us so much money that we could hardly not say yes. And that was SFX. Then SXA rolled up a lot of us and so were the clear channel for $4 billion. $4 billion. And then, Clear Channel spun it off into Live Nations, and now Live Nations has spun off the theatrical division and the circus bought the motor sports division – Wringling Brothers from Live Nations now emerged with Ticketmaster and I think it will be back like it was . . . in 10 years, it will be back like it was 20 years ago. Individual promoters and regional offices.
DG: When you sold the company, you were the largest entertainment company of its kind?
AJB: Yes, live entertainment company.
DG: The largest live entertainment company in the country, in the world, was not based in New York or LA, it was based in Houston, Texas.
AJB: Say the last part of the question again, I am sorry.
DG: You were the largest. I just wanted to make the point that it was based in Houston. You have offices in LA and New York but it was a Houston company that had achieved that status.
AJB: And we were always identified with Houston. If there was a major deal afoot in New York and Phantom and when Le Mis went on the road, it was a major deal because we did not agree with the way they wanted to do it. And we were representing 30 markets. And they took us to court and, of course, the court threw it out. It was just they had to play in our ballpark the way we wanted to play. And when the time came that the final decision had to be made, they all came to Houston because that is where I was and that is where our legal counsel was and that is where our accounting was. And besides that, you know it is better that you are on your own home court but, I mean, everybody in New York knew that headquarters was Houston. Everybody on the West Coast knew the . . . and, by the way, we got that question often – “How can an entertainment in Texas be as big as you are?” It was a matter of the right people. And we were always identified with that. And that was a thrill for me as well -- to think that you can build, if you have a city to build it with the attitude that this city has and all the mayors – you just take them one at a time and they all contributed not according to hoyle. I do not mean that in a bad way but, I mean, if you had a problem, you could always go see the mayor and say “Mayor, I’ve got a problem. Can we do anything about it? And you could work together maybe to do something about it if you thought it was in the best interest. We had more theater seats in this town outside of New York and Boston. There is the country. Think about that. More theaters with ______, with Wortham, with now the Hobby, with the Alley. It is an amazing statistic. We do not do real well at selling ourselves but when you look at the performing arts in this town, with a world-class ballet, a world-class symphony, a world-class opera . . . you don’t find that everywhere. Look at Dallas. You ask anybody probably in New York, ‘What is the performing arts capital of Texas?’ They would probably say Dallas. Yet, they do not have a full strength opera. They do not have a ballet. Fort Worth Ballet plays Dallas. As I said, we have not done a great job selling ourselves but we’ve got it all over those people, and that does not juts happen. It happens because you have individual people who are willing to invest n Houston, and it is not only investment in real estate or in the oil industry – it is an investment in the city and making it a quality city. You know, you cannot hire the number one petroleum engineer in the country and not have so many things for him. And so, we have had the R.E. Bob Smiths and Judge Hoffheinz’ and on and on and on of people that had invested in this city and it invested in all parts of it – not just which is . . . their biggest interests like oil or whatever it would be.
DG: You have alluded to it so I am going to ask you the question directly. Do you think this city has a unique spirit and if so, how would you describe the spirit of Houston?
AJB: I do think it has a unique spirit, and it might be generations after that but the same spirit that made these oil giants what they were. I mean, they were shooting from the hip and the free spirit of anything – you could anything if you are tough enough and mean enough and smart enough to do. All the main oil companies started . . . Humble. It took me years to start calling it Exxon. I was always going to the Humble station! But, you know, these guys really were wildcatters and they stepped out there and I think that spirit may be what we are experiencing now in a different form but it is the same spirit and I think it is part of what Houston is. It is part of what makes it great.
DG: So, Alan, what keeps you busy nowadays?
AJB: Well, we still own the theater in San Antonio and we still own the theater in New Orleans. And we are looking to get involved in one in Brooklyn. I’ve got kids who just love what we do. The whole family has been in business with me and I am in business with them now, of course, but I think as we do that . . . we have other types of investments but nothing that even comes near to the excitement that we get out of doing a Broadway show. I still invest in Broadway shows. I still go to New York and see all the Broadway shows, and I guess that is my favorite. So we still keep our . . . I think, in a 2 year period, the family will have a pretty sizeable entertainment company. Not like it was but more Broadway maybe and operating theater, real estate. Operating theaters like the Magestic in San Antonio. The situation in Brooklyn could be just fabulous for us if we . . . it is one of those things, “You are the luckiest” . . . no matter which way it goes, you are not going to be happy. If you get it, you say, “Oh my God, what do I do now?” And if you don’t get it, you say, “God, we missed another one!”
DG: So, I can tell you are Houston proud.
AJB: Oh, yes.
DG: What are you most proud of about the city? If somebody watches this interview 10, 15 years from now, this period that you have been here and you look back, what are you most proud of in terms of what the city offered you, allowed you to do? What were you most proud of about the city.
AJB: I think the thing that I would be most proud of and I think has been consistent from the beginning of time with the City is the opportunity to do or be whatever you want to be. The opportunity to get as much help. You know, my father used to tell me . . . that the old First City Bank, Judge – what was his name? I think it was Elkins, maybe who was president and started the bank, First City, that the bookies and the madams used to line up at that bank every Monday morning to put the money in or take the money out. I mean, it was a banking system that supported these. This is a crazy analogy but, I mean, nothing . . . there were no secrets and no strangers, and whatever it took to make things happen, there were people here that made them happen. And I think it is that undying spirit. Now, it does not happen that way anymore, but that undying spirit that keeps the opportunity always open. If I were a young man, I would come here. This is absolutely where I would start. Irving Schlinker at the Houston National Bank, he used to have what he called a Louisiana guarantee - any guy that walked in to see him, whatever he wanted to do, whatever he needed money for, and he liked him, he would guarantee his loan for $1,000 to the bank. Now, I am going back into the 1940s so $1,000 was not a lot of money but it was a substantial amount. I don’t know how many loans he ever paid off but could you imagine going into a banker . . . now you go in to the banker and he says, “I have been in the banking business 30 years and I have not written off 1 loan.” That’s bad. That’s not good. He’s not making enough loans, right? So I think it is that spirit that exists here that is still available. I know it is.
DG: Great. Well, Alan, thank you very much for your time.
AJB: I hope you got something out of this.
DG: It has been fantastic. Thank you.