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Changing Times Doom Texas Legend : For Houston's Shamrock Hotel, the Glory Days End

January 21, 1986|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Glenn McCarthy was a wildcatter, and a tough one. He loved to fight and drink and cuss and make tons of money drilling for oil.

Put some whiskey in him and he'd go looking for trouble. He once picked a fight with his own pilot while the plane was in the air. The country clubs of Houston banned him for his rough ways and his head-knocking.

But McCarthy, who today at 78 still spews invectives into his sentences, had an idea about that. If the country club set wouldn't have him, then by God he'd make them wish they had. He'd build a hotel, a huge hotel, with the biggest swimming pool known to man, a place where he could not only do his own drinking and carousing, but a place the uptowners would come just to be seen.

He'd bring in the likes of Sinatra and Hope and Crosby and he'd put Houston on the map. And to show them and to open up the town, he'd build the hotel way outside Houston so the prissy rich would have to drive seven miles to get there.

Thus was born the Shamrock, the showplace hotel McCarthy opened in 1949 with a giant drunken bash and more Hollywood stars than this raucous nouveau riche town had ever seen.

If the plot sounds familiar, think of Edna Ferber's novel "Giant" and of James Dean playing Jett Rink in the movie--McCarthy himself figures that he was Ferber's model for Rink. Think of a time of instant wealth and the Spindletop oil patch where McCarthy was born and the brash Texas spirit that is a trademark of the state.

But think also of the ways that times and fortunes change. Now, Houston is preparing to say its goodbys to the Shamrock.

Next June, the hotel whose opening was featured in Life and Time and Fortune, the hotel McCarthy painted in 63 shades of green in honor of his Irish ancestry, the hotel where multimillion-dollar deals were made with a handshake in the Cork Club, will close its doors for good.

The victim of soaring costs and too many empty rooms, it will be taken over by the Texas Medical Center next door, which paid only $14.9 million for its 22.6 acres of prime real estate. Whether the building will be put to some new use or torn down--perhaps for a parking lot--is unclear. But it will no longer be the Shamrock, the place where rich Texans gathered each year to auction off fine art and prize bulls at the same time.

'Living Monument'

"The building is more than just glass, brass, right angles and wallboard," said William E. Hall, the hotel's general manager. "It is a living monument to Houston and Texas."

McCarthy, who has not owned the hotel for years now, will no longer be able to eat his lunch there. Jeweler Steve Chasanow will no longer sell his gems to the oil rich and movie stars, as he has since the hotel opened.

"When you come to one place for 36 years and walk away, it's got to hurt a little bit," Chasanow said. "What they'll probably do is tear it down, and that's a shame."

Pity Mario Garza--but not too much, for he has his memories.

Garza, who started as a bellhop and is now a banquet chief, weeps unashamed when he thinks of the day when the Shamrock will close and his 29 years of work there will be over. But he can smile at the good times and the good stories, like the one about the family, hotel regulars, that made a practice of lounging about naked in their 18th-floor suite.

"If you came to serve them, you had to be ready for that," he said, savoring the memory.

Six Patties for Lasorda

LaVonne Anders, a waitress in the coffee shop, recalled how she always took special care to serve Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda six sausage patties each morning when the team was in town to play the Astros.

"He loves them sausage patties," she said.

When asked how she thought McCarthy compared to Edna Ferber's Jett Rink, Anders replied: "He (McCarthy) was a lot wilder than that. When he got drunk, he had to have a fight."

And she will have the memories of the likes of Jim West, "Silver Dollar Jim," the Houston oil man who always paid for everything with his coin of choice. When he died, his wife found bags of silver dollars in the basement.

Chasanow will remember the oil men who would come in one day and buy jewels for their wives and next day to do the same thing for their girlfriends. And he will think back on the time when, because the Prince of Wales was going to stay at the hotel, there was an attempt to school McCarthy, the son of a plumber, in the etiquette of bowing to royalty.

"I don't bow to nobody," said McCarthy.

Poster on the Wall

McCarthy, who still goes to his downtown Houston office, has a "Giant" movie poster on the far wall. What did he think of James Dean's portrayal of Jett Rink?

"Well, I am a bit bigger than the man," he said, absolutely deadpan.

And what does McCarthy think of what is happening to the hotel he built? Not much.

"The oil business made the state of Texas and the Shamrock filled it in," he said. "It should not be torn down. It's still as valuable as the first day we put it up."

And what a day that was.

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