Billy Graham at its birth christened it ”The Eighth Wonder of the World.” An awestruck Mickey Mantle, who once got lost in its caverns trying to find the locker room, compared it to a flying saucer. On April 9, 1965, the world’s first domed stadium, a 208-foot-high concrete bubble called the Astrodome, opened for business in the flatlands south of Houston with an exhibition game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees. On that day, spectator sports and stadium-size entertainment changed forever.
Most significantly, baseball and football fans and concertgoers could finally order tickets without fear of cancellation or delay due to weather. Because grass couldn’t grow under the dome’s roof, doormat-like AstroTurf was invented, which affected everything from the pace of the game to the kind of shoes worn to play it. The Astrodome launched two other techno-sports marvels: the first eye-popping, fully electronic scoreboard and sky boxes — corporate luxury suites complete with bars and color TVs. Today, the U.S. has 10 domed stadiums, and two more, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and the Alamodome in San Antonio, will be finished in 1992 and ’93, respectively.
When it opened, purists condemned the Astrodome as a gaudy sacrilege profaning fresh-air sports. ”Whether you like it or not, we’re in show business,” replied Roy Hofheinz, the flamboyant businessman (formerly Houston’s mayor and a county judge) who had used the promise of an indoor park to win the city a National League baseball franchise in 1962. One Texas-size problem quickly emerged, though. During the Astrodome’s first day game, players couldn’t see the ball against the clear plastic roof, so outfielders weaved like Mr. Magoo when fly balls were hit in their direction. The roof was quickly painted off-white to dull the glare.
Hofheinz ran the Astrodome for a decade, booking all manner of entertainment into his stadium. Judy Garland played there. So did Elvis. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus broke all its attendance records there, too. Robert Altman filmed much of his bizarre 1970 comedy Brewster McCloud in the Astrodome. More recently, the indoor-sport pioneer was used for several scenes in the CBS movie Triumph of the Heart: The Ricky Bell Story (airing April 2).
Hofheinz, who died in 1982, didn’t live to realize his loftiest ambition for the structure: a national political convention. But its current management has just announced that, despite pro-tests from baseball officials and the players’ union, the GOP, with funny hats and banners in hand, will descend on the stadium in the summer of ’92, making the Astros take their campaign on the road for more than three weeks.
TIME CAPSULE April 9, 1965
At the movies, Ann-Margret made waves as a returning Navy vet’s rich temptress in Bus Riley’s Back in Town. Fiction best-sellers included Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase and Saul Bellow’s Herzog. The Supremes reigned on the music scene with ”Stop! In the Name of Love” and TV viewers lapped up Bonanza and Bewitched.