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AstroWorld Fans Bid on Kitsch for the Memories

Houstonians sift through treasured moments and souvenirs at an auction to clear out the beloved but now closed amusement park.

January 08, 2006|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — For the middle-age Houstonians digging through bargain bins of T-shirts, two-foot-long Texas-size combs and other park souvenirs, it was a chance to reminisce, and even get a little misty about the passing of an era -- when Houston changed from a cow town to Space City, the Astrodome was the last word in modern engineering and AstroWorld was the definition of groovy summertime fun.

This weekend, the roller coasters, fiberglass cartoon characters and kitschy signs that were part of the AstroWorld amusement park for 37 years went on the auction block.

The park's owner, Six Flags Inc. based in Oklahoma City, closed AstroWorld in October, citing declining attendance and the soaring value of 109 acres of land under the carousels and concession stands.

The park has since been slowly dismantled, and the auction was primarily meant for serious bidders seeking high-dollar thrill rides and machinery. But for those who grew up on the thrills the park offered, it was the little things that meant a lot.

"This is my youth and my children's youth, right here," said Connie Bloodworth, 56, lifting a cardboard box stuffed with souvenir pencils and gift-shop mood rings. "You know Houston has to change and grow, but it's sad, you hate to see this part of it end."

Flamboyant Houston developer and politician Roy Hofheinz opened AstroWorld in 1968, expanding an empire that included the Astrodome across the freeway and four hotels in what was called the "Astrodomain." Six Flags eventually took over management of AstroWorld, adding steeper, more thrilling roller coasters and gravity-defying rides that attracted a new generation of park-goers.

Heather Miller, 31, left the auction lugging three big bags stuffed with T-shirts for her children. Passing the partially dismantled rides, she stopped to study one of her favorites -- Greezed Lightnin', which propelled riders forward and backward at stomach-turning speeds. The ride children dared each other to try was now just hunks of gray steel scattered across the ground. "I never thought seeing something like that would make me feel so sad," she said.

Dominga Marez, 51, recalled that waiting in line during the hot Houston summer was actually fun at AstroWorld because of what was then a novel idea: outdoor air conditioning. "You couldn't wait to get to the parts in line where the air would blow on you," she said. "Oh, that felt so good."

Kenny Ryman, 42, visited AstroWorld every summer for 37 years. Inside the auction warehouse, he spied a sign that stopped him cold. "You Must Be 4' Tall to Ride the Texas Cyclone."

"Look, they just put this sign out here," he called to a friend. The two men wordlessly studied the old hand-painted sign for a good 30 seconds. The Texas Cyclone was a wooden twister with a devoted following of old-school roller coaster fans. "I grew up at this park," Ryman said finally. 'It's hard to talk about it all ending."

He gestured in the direction of the Astrodome, which closed to major league baseball in 1999. "First the dome, now this," he said. "Hofheinz must be turning in his grave about now."

Even after its closure, though, the Astrodome came back to life in a gesture of hospitality -- it gave temporary shelter to thousands of evacuees from New Orleans who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Its long-term future remains up in the air -- although a private company is interested in turning it into a hotel.

Six Flags has operated AstroWorld since 1975, but there is a disconnect for many Houstonians -- AstroWorld is cherished, but Six Flags evokes little emotion. Which may explain why Sharita Jones, checking out park souvenirs, quickly rejected anything marked only with a Six Flags logo. "It doesn't remind you of anything," she said, tossing aside unwanted coin purses and candleholders.

Jones wasn't sure what she would do with the AstroWorld souvenirs, but she knew she had to buy something to remind her of this place.

"Maybe I'll put it in a curio cabinet and just look at it," she said. "I was devastated when I heard AstroWorld was closing. It was part of your life, and you want something that reminds you of what it was like. You don't want to forget how it felt to be there."

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