If Roy Mark Hofheinz operated anywhere but in the state of Texas, he would stick out like a sore thumb. In Texas he sticks out like a sore pinkie. Even so, he is without doubt the most inventive, imaginative and successful entrepreneur in the world, and he is the first to admit it.
Hofheinz is best known as the owner of the Astrodome, which he isn't. He has the use of it for a lot less than it would cost him to own it. When he was a kid he didn't have enough money to go to the circus. He now owns a half interest in Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey. He always wanted to be a baseball player, but he was handicapped by three shortcomings. "I couldn't run, hit or throw," he says. He now owns the Houston Astros, which don't do much better.
Hofheinz also owns four hotels and Astroworld, which is modeled after Disneyland and features an artificial mountain named Der Hofheinzberg. In the near future he will own five more hotels, a bigger and better Astroworld and, hopefully, an NHL club. Hofheinz's empire, or Astrodomain, is built on a swamp on the outskirts of Houston, which, not many years ago, was graced only by a straggling mesquite tree. This grew on what is now the 50-yard line of the Astrodome, which rises out of the south Texas prairie much as Hofheinz's belly swells from his body.
It is not true, as some Houstonians would have you believe, that Hofheinz asked the architects of the Astrodome to model it on the general outline of his majestic abdomen, although it has been estimated that the costs of building the Dome and Hofheinz's belly are not too far apart. It is a fact, however, that Hofheinz's waistline matches his age, which is 57. Hofheinz says he eats "anything that won't bite me back," and his poison is diet Dr Pepper and Jack Daniel's, which somehow lulls him into the belief that he is dieting.
Indeed, cost may preclude the construction of any more enclosed stadiums, if not ample stomachs. The Judge, as Hofheinz is known in Houston, believes that the Astrodome may be the first and last of its kind, like the Crystal Palace. "This one," he says, "was built for $31 million. Costs have gone up since then. I don't think you could duplicate it for $80 million and no structure costing $80 million is economically feasible. You hear about people in Montreal and Milwaukee and New Orleans who say they are going to build something like the Astrodome, but when they get the figures they change their minds."
Indeed they do. And if the Judge had had to foot the bill for the Astrodome, it is doubtful that it would have been built, either. The Astrodome was built by the taxpayers of Harris County, who, 25 years before, had elected Hofheinz county judge at the tender age of 24 and, later, mayor of Houston. To his credit, Hofheinz retired from the bench with only $18 in his pocket. At the time he had far more enemies than dollars, and that situation has changed only because he now has $20 million dollars.
Not long ago, sitting in his office on the 7� level of the Astrodome, Hofheinz looked back on his climb up. "I was the youngest man ever elected to be judge," he said. He was smoking a cigar that has often been described as being a foot long but actually measures seven inches. His brand is Sans Souci ("Whatever that means in French") Perfectos, and he goes through a box of 25 a day. "Don't say 'smoke,' " he says. " 'Consume' is the word. I chew a lot of them and give some away. When you are a young man on the way up," he continued, "everyone wants to give you a hand. 'He's a promising young man with a future,' they say, happy because you're poor and beneath them. Once you make it, they change their attitude. When you get old and rich the same ones who wanted to help say, 'He's a snobbish old son of a bitch.' I've been on both sides of the fence and I guess it doesn't make much difference. I'm no different now than I was then."
Of course, he is different. When he was a young politician he was rather more of an idealist and, as one result, he is well-regarded by the Negro population of Houston.
As county judge he integrated the Harris County golf courses and buses. "It was ridiculous," he says. "Negroes paid taxes for the golf courses and couldn't play on them. I did it without saying I was going to and we had no trouble." As mayor he had COLORED and WHITE painted out on the City Hall rest room signs and no one noticed it for months. He integrated the public libraries without fanfare, too, calling in the white and black press and asking them not to print it. The libraries had been integrated for some time before there was any protest. Then a white, socially prominent female paid Hofheinz a visit.
"I won't let my children sit by black children in the library," she said. "I don't know what they would catch!"