Monthly Archives: April 2008

Busch Gardens (1971-1973)


[Original photo on file.]

[Original photo on file.]

[Original photo on file.]

Houston’s Busch Gardens was around only briefly – the park opened in May 1971 and was closed within two years. It was located adjacent to the Anheuser-Busch brewery (775 Gellhorn Dr.), which opened in 1966.

The Galveston Daily News reported on May 23, 1971:

A $12 million amusements park patterned after Florida’s biggest tourist attraction opens next Saturday in northeast Houston. The 40-acre Busch Gardens primarily has an Asian theme except for an ice cave with a temperature controlled environment for several varieties of penguins, polar bears and sea lions. Otherwise there are islands with monkeys, an elephant compound, deer parks, a Bengal tiger temple, a rhinoceros compound, a bear and cat cub arena, and an area where youngsters can pet lambs, goats and llamas. Other animals include . . . antelope, yaks, Bactrian camels, and lesser pandas. A large freeflight cage with walkways houses over 100 species of foreign birds, hidden wire mesh perches are wired to heat the feet of the birds electrically. Benches used by the monkeys also have electrical heating systems. The park is adjacent to the Houston plant of Anheuser-Busch Inc., which also operates the Tampa Gardens . . . . Transportation in the Houston Gardens include a boat route that covers two-thirds of the grounds, including passages through the ice cave and freeflight bird cage. There also is a train modeled alter the early English steam locomotives widely used in Asia during the I9th century. A 950-seat ampitheater features the trademark of all the Busch Gardens, a bird show with trained macaws and cockatoos. There is an admission charge of $2.25 for adults and $1.25 for children from 3 to 12 but there is free beer for adults. The Gardens started out with no charge but the high cost of animals, birds and labor forced a policy change. The Houston Gardens already have had a $30,000 casualty. One of the two early arriving rhinos became ill and died of what was determined to be acute indigestion. Tampa’s Gardens attract some [2.5] million people a year. Houston expects 700,000 to 800,000 [t]he first year with the annual average leveling out to about one million after three years. With a permanent staff of from 75 to 80, the gardens will have some 300 employes in summer months. The gardens are to open with operating hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but Busch spokesmen acknowledge late summer heat may force some adjustments for the protection of the animals. Saturday’s opening will follow a Friday dedication luncheon to be given by August A. Busch Jr. for several hundred guests.

A Corpus Christi Caller-Times article that also appeared on May 23, 1971, varied slightly:

The state’s newest tourist attraction, Busch Gardens, Houston, will open at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 29. The 11-million dollar garden and zoo is located adjacent to Anheuser-Busch Brewery. This garden, although similar to the giant complexes operated by Anheuser-Busch in Tampa, Los Angeles, and St Louis, will create a new environment featuring Asian animals, architecture and landscaping. It will actually be two gardens. The large garden and zoo area will cover about 40 acres. Admission fees of $2.25 for adults and $1.25 for children will be charged for this area. A smaller ‘mini-garden’ with various animal and other displays, will be located alongside the larger area. There will be no charge for admission to the mini-garden. One of the principal features of the park will be a canal, in which a series of water-propelled boats provide visitor transportation. Quiet, completely safe and comfortable, the boat ride will take a passenger past about three-fourths of the gardens. Midway in the boat ride guests may disembark to enjoy the animal contact area. For those who want to walk part or all of the way through the entire area, enticing paths allow them to proceed at their own pace. During the summer Houston Busch Gardens will be open seven days a week, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. After Sept 7, the Gardens will operate Saturday and Sunday only. Winter hours will be 9 a.m -5 p.m.

A later Caller-Times piece also mentioned a Sherpa Slide and ferris wheel for children. A Brownsville Herald article referred to the boat-ride canal as the “Ceylon Channel”, stated that the park had “some 30 species of mammals,” and noted that 12 acres of the 40-acre property were devoted to parking.

The park appeared to have been going strong at its one-year anniversary. The Deer Park Progress wrote on June 15, 1972:

Busch Gardens is now open for its second season with new attractions, rides, live talent and extended hours according to general manager Dick O’Connor. The Gardens will be open Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 10 a,m. to 8 p.m. and Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. One of the new attractions planned this year is an elephant ride for the children. And there will be a live talent show, with various Houston area groups and other talented performers. A special sound stage has been built in the middle of The Gardens. The always popular Bird Show given three times a day in the amphitheater will be repeated this year. Some of the other popular attractions at The Gardens include the Ceylon Channel Boat Ride, the walk through a Free Flight Bird Cage and viewing the antics of Arctic animals in the dome-shaped Ice Cave. The tiger display will again intrigue visitors of all ages. This Asian-themed family entertainment and educational facility, situated next to the Houston plant for Anheuser-Busch off Interstate 10 in east Houston, will be even more colorful and lush this year because of the growth of the landscaping, most of which was planted just a year ago. New additions to the over 30 species of mammals and more than 100 species of birds and water fowl will be seen by visitors.

Sadly, though, as the Victoria Advocate reported on December 23, 1972, “attendance the first year fell far short of the expected 800,000.” Busch Gardens “will shut down most of its wild animal displays next year because of low attendance and high costs,” the article stated. On January 4, 1973, as reported in the Deer Park Progress, August A. Busch, Jr. announced that Houston’s Busch Gardens had been “unprofitable,” that “[a]ll efforts to improve the situation have been unsuccessful,” and that the park would be converted into “a sales promotion facility for the company’s beer sales division.” The Baytown Sun, in a June 3, 1973 article, called the park a “disaster” – noting that “[t]he brewery people lost $4 million on the project in a recent fiscal quarter.”

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Frenchtown and the Silver Slipper

From Northwestern State University’s Louisiana Creole Heritage Center’s booklet “The Creole Chronicles – Houston Frenchtown” (2002):

“Many Creoles who were left devastated and homeless after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 relocated from Louisiana to Houston, Texas. Because the people who settled in an area generally bounded by Collingsworth, Russell, Liberty Road and Jensen Drive spoke Creole French and enjoyed their food, music and culture together, this community became known as Frenchtown. . . . The area is comprised primarily of ‘shotgun’ houses replicating the architectural style of New Orleans. . . . Streets were dirt roads and the nearest transportation in the vicinity was by streetcar. The people walked from their homes to Liberty Road and Jensen Drive. From there it cost five cents to ride the streetcar three miles to attend St. Nicholas Catholic Church, the only Catholic Church for people of color in Houston in 1927. . . . Meetings were held in the people’s homes and by 1929 they decided to hold house ‘La La’ dances, selling gumbo, boudin and pralines in their homes to raise money to build [Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church]. . . . House dances no longer take place, but many Catholic churches, restaurants and clubs in the Houston area continue to hold Zydeco dances on a regular basis. Creoles along with people of various other cultures generally are in attendance at these dances. . . . When the people were not attending ‘La La’ dances at each others’ houses, they were watching movies at either the Lyons or Delux Theaters that were located nearby. One of the earliest favorite places to attend Zydeco dances was LaStrappe’s Creole Night Club that was situated where the Eastex Freeway exists today.”

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St. Nicholas Catholic Church (2508 Clay) [Photo by Les Clay – St. Nicholas Center – Church Gazetteer]

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St. Nicholas historical marker [Photo by Les Clay – St. Nicholas Center – Church Gazetteer]

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Original Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church building (4000 Sumpter) [Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church website]

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Texas Historical Commission marker (Corner of Highway 59 and Collingsworth) [Frenchtown Community Association website]

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Continental Lounge and Zydeco Ballroom
(Collingsworth at Des Chaumes – Closed)

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Silver Slipper
(3717 Crane)

History of the Silver Slipper excerpted from Roger Wood’s book (photos by James Fraher), “Down in Houston – Bayou City Blues” (2003):

“[T]he symbiotic relationship between blues and zydeco survives in Frenchtown even beyond the year 2000, just a few blocks north of the old Continental building in the sagging wood-frame structure that houses the Silver Slipper. Curley Cormier, a soft-spoken gentleman fond of three-piece suits, is the proprietor there and is much beloved by his loyal customers. . . . In 1962, after several years in the construction industry, [Curley’s father, Alfred Cormier] capitalized on his well-proven talent for throwing a house party by opening a club – a little café with live down-home music – in a shotgun shack on Crane Street in Frenchtown. Known then mainly as Alfred’s Place, it featured a mix of live blues and zydeco six nights a week, providing a steady gig for former Houston resident Clifton Chenier for over five years. . . . According to the Cormiers, the Third Ward bluesman [Lightnin’ Hopkins] often visited the club (located a few miles northeast of his home turf) whenever Chenier was there. Cousins by marriage, the musicians reportedly were good friends who enjoyed each other’s company, offstage and on. When Hopkins showed up, the two would often treat the audience to an impromptu showdown between guitar and accordion, trading licks and improvising arrangements, recycling and inventing songs on the spot – surely blurring the aesthetic line between blues and zydeco in the process. Word of such savory jam sessions enhances the popularity of the club well beyond Frenchtown, so that the clientele eventually cam to include blacks from Third Ward and other parts of the city. As business increased, the elder Cormier opted to buy the property next door and expand, building onto and remodeling the original establishment to its present relative spaciousness. . . . Following his father’s tenure as proprietor, [Curley] Cormier’s older sister managed the place for a while, rechristening it the Silver Slipper but maintaining tradition and booking both zydeco and blues performers. Then around 1973 Cormier, who was already well established as a versatile guitarist backing the likes of soul-blues singer Luvenia Lewis (b. 1940) at local clubs, assumed operation of the popular nightspot.”

See also:
The Handbook of Texas Online, “Zydeco”
“Come Go Home with Me – Tracing the Bayou City’s Blues Heritage”, Austin Chronicle, May 30, 2003.
C. Rust, “Frenchtown”, Houston Chronicle, Feb. 23, 1992.
J. Lomax, “H-Town Zydeco”, Houston Press, Sept. 21, 2006.