Concerts, stunts, movies, and sermons
On November 19, 1965, Rev. Billy Graham began a ten-day "Crusade for Christ." The first day drew 61,000 people, including Governor Connally and President Johnson, and that attendance record stood for years. The crusades were aimed at converting individuals in the crowd, which Graham did by encouraging every person to stand up, come forward, and accept Jesus. Thousands of people did just that.
Concerts and Shows
In 1942, The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo brought in its first "star entertainer," Gene Autry for a performance. He would return five times, and by the early 1960s the tradition of concerts closing each day of the Rodeo was well-established. When RodeoHouston moved to the Astrodome in 1966, the tradition was continued and even expanded to attract larger crowds with more mainstream acts. Other performers also played the Astrodome, despite the lackluster acoustics; Judge Hofheinz and the Houston Sports Association struggled to find and configure sound systems capable of filling the massive structure.
A list of performers at the Astrodome includes:
- December 17, 1965: Judy Garland (opening act: The Supremes)
- August 16, 1969: Frank Sinatra
- February 27-March 1, 1970: Elvis Presley
- July 7-8, 1971: Astrodome Jazz Festival (Acts: The Ike & Tina Turner Revue; B.B. King; Cannonball Adderly; Donny Hathaway; Roberta Flack; Lou Rawls; Herbie Mann; Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond; Jimmy Smith with Kenny Burrell and Clark Terry; and Gerry Mulligan & the "Giants of Jazz," Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Kai Winding, and Al McKibbon)
- March 10, 1973: Jackson 5
- July 13-15, 1973: Astrodome Jazz Festival (Acts: Aretha Franklin; Ella Fitzgerald; the Staple Singers; Stevie Wonder; Billy Paul ("Me & Mrs. Jones"); Ray Charles & His Orchestra; Rashaan Roland Kirk; B.B. King; Herbie Mann; Charles Mingus; David "Fathead" Newman; Bobby Womack; Freddie Hubbard)
- February 4, 1974: Jackson 5
- March 3, 1974: Elvis Presley
- January 25, 1976: Night of the Hurricane Rubin Carter Benefit Concert (Acts: Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Ringo Starr)
- October 28–29, 1981: The Rolling Stones (Tattoo You Tour)
- November 9–10, 1984: The Jacksons (Victory Tour)
- July 24, 1987: Madonna (Who's That Girl Tour)
- November 18, 1987: Pink Floyd (A Momentary Lapse of Reason Tour)
- September 2, 1989: Miller Lite's "Biggest Party in History" (Acts: The Who, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, the Fabulous Thunderbirds)
- November 8, 1989: The Rolling Stones (Steel Wheels Tour)
- September 4, 1992: Metallica and Guns N' Roses (opening act: Faith No More)
- October 14, 1992: U2 (ZOO TV Tour)
- February 27, 1993: Selena y Los Dinos
- February 28, 1993: Selena y Los Dinos
- April 22, 1993: Paul McCartney (New World Tour)
- November 13, 1994: The Rolling Stones (Voodoo Lounge Tour)
- February 26, 1995: Selena y Los Dinos
- November 28, 1997: U2 (PopMart Tour)
- March 3, 2002: George Strait & the Ace in the Hole Band
Many of these performances broke records. The first concert at the Astrodome, Judy Garland's 1965 performance, attracted a crowd of 60,000 people, who paid prices ranging from $1.50 to $7.50 for seats. In 1974, Elvis Presley's performances closing the Rodeo broke his own record for attendance, with two shows totaling approximately 88,000 attendees. In 1995, Tejano superstar Selena set a record of 69,000 attendees at the final concert before her death. The final concert at the Astrodome, George Strait's 2002 "One Last Time" performance, shattered previous records, with 80,020 coming out to close the Rodeo and say goodbye to the Dome.
For legendary stuntman Evel Knievel's two appearances at the Astrodome in 1971, promoters sold more than 100,000 tickets. The advertisement text was a masterpiece: "Appearing both nights if he survives Friday's appearance." Attendees got to see a demolition derby, and a powder-puff derby, and then the main event: Evel Knieval jumped successfully over 13 cars. Six weeks later, he set a world record in Ontario, Canada, by jumping over 19 cars.
The Astrodome in the movies
The Astrodome as a location for movies evolved over time in interesting ways. The first film was Brewster McCloud, starring Bud Cort of Harold and Maude. It was released in 1970. The film, which was described by Roger Ebert as "difficult," is about Cort as a strange man living in the Astrodome machinery, who is convinced by Shelley Duvall's character Suzanne to build a flying machine and fly it around the Astrodome. The film premiered in the Dome.
On a more populist note, George Hamilton's 1971 Evel Knievel included footage from his real jump the year before. While much of the film's pseudo-biographical script may have come from the imagination of screenwriter John Milius (who went on to write Apocalypse Now), the Astrodome jump, at least, was real.
The Lord of the Universe
The 1970s got stranger. The film The Lord of the Universe was released in 1974 to document a religious gathering the year before, called Millenium '73, held by a Divine Light Mission. The group's leader, Guru Maharj Ji, stayed in the Celestial Suite, and promised that within days the Astrodome would fly from the earth by the power of the devotees' meditation. Despite an outlay of $1.5 million on rental fees and promotion for the Astrodome and other Astro-vemues, which the group viewed as ideal for their celestial worship, turnout was sparse and the dome stayed firmly planted.
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training
This sequel to The Bad News Bears came out in 1977, and it told the story of cool guy Kelly Leak reconnecting with his estranged father on the way to play an exhibition game in Houston. The Bears steal a van and drive all the way from California to Houston, only to have their Little League game interrupted so the Astros can play their scheduled game. Astro Bob Watson speaks the line "Hey, let the kids play," and the chant gets picked up by successive waves of people until the whole crowd chants "Let them play!" It was a strange foreshadowing of the chant that erupted during 2002 MLB All-Star game after it was called in the 11th inning.
Selena and demographic change
Tejano superstar Selena played the Astrodome as the headliner for the rodeo on February 26, 1995, and she broke all previous attendance records, playing a sold-out show to nearly 69,000 people. Two years later she was tragically murdered.
The enormous draw of a Tejano star is indicative of how much had changed in Houston since the Astrodome was built thirty years before when, coincidentally, the 1965 Immigration Act became law. The Immigration Act opened the doors to non-European immigrants, and since that time 88% of immigrants to the US have been from places other than Europe.
Houston has become one of the most diverse places in the nation over the past 50 years or so. In 1960, there were 1.2 million people in Harris County, and 74% were Caucasian, 20% African-American, and 6% Latino. By 1990 there were 1.6 million, and 28% were Latino. Of Latino people, 75% are from Mexico.
Since that time the number of Latinos in Houston has more than doubled, growing by 74% in the 1990s and 43% in the 2000s. The African-American population meanwhile has grown at 20% per year, while Asian immigration grows the fastest of all.
Immigration gives Houston much of its famous hustle, like the kind Roy Hofheinz himself embodied. If he had lived to see the amazing diversity of his city, he would no doubt have invented new ways to draw them to the Astrodome.