History of ‘Space City’ — ‘Goin’ Back to Houston, Houston, Houston’

Oct 14, 2022, 8:53 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 4:18 pm
Two oddities from the 1960s, a Chevrolet Corvair and the under-construction Astrodome in Houston; the building is mostly vacant and unused these days after being home to the Houston Astros for decades. The whereabouts of the Corvair are unknown. (Courtesy Mister McKinney)
(Courtesy Mister McKinney)

After what happened to the Mariners in Houston this week, it’s a place most people would probably rather forget. Unless, of course, there’s a Game 5 on Monday. In the meantime, here’s a little history of Houston, with a focus on the basic backstory along with some more recent pop-culture facts.

Houston has a lot of history. Mister McKinney – Mister is actually his first name (“hippie parents,” he says) – is a public historian there who leads history tours aboard a school bus with the roof cut off, has a weekly radio show, and appears regularly on local TV talking about all things Houston history.

“Houston was founded August 3, 1836, and it was a big real estate opportunity, right?” McKinney told KIRO Newsradio. “Here the Allen brothers were, at the time period, creating this town called ‘Houston’ because it was the capital for the new Republic of Texas.”

“Sam Houston was a larger-than-life character, formally governor of Tennessee, then later governor of Texas,” McKinney continued. “Sam Houston was the only person ever, in US history, to be governor of two different states. He was like George Washington – just revered and just loved, and somebody who everybody admired.

“Houston is a progressive city, grown over the years – ‘Space City,’ as well all know,” McKinney said, using his best high-speed, pack-in-the-info history tour guide enunciation and rapid-fire pace. “We actually [invented] indoor baseball” in the Astrodome, McKinney says. In 1965, former Houston mayor, “Roy Hofheinz was the guy that gave us the Houston Colt .45s, at the time, now known as the Houston Astros. And the rest is history.

“You can’t build a stadium nowadays anywhere in the world without using some of the things that were founded here in Houston,” McKinney said. “Not just AstroTurf, but things that apply to suites and sky boxes, and things like that. So come visit Houston, come on my history tour, and meet these larger-than-life characters that shaped our city.”

The ‘Space City’ nickname comes from Houston being home to NASA’s Mission Control facility – having been selected after a screening process that took place when Texas native Lyndon Johnson was vice president. Houston is also where President Kennedy gave his famously galvanizing speech at Rice University on Sept. 12, 1962, promising to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade. NASA – and the petroleum industry, of course – are to Houston, what coffee and grunge (okay, and Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon, too, I suppose) are to Seattle.

As far as the ‘Space City’ nickname is concerned, is that tiresome-though-fun-to-say “Houston, we have a problem” catchphrase irritating at all to proud Houstonians?

“You know, it’s good and bad. Obviously, we’ve been immortalized in Hollywood through Tom Hanks and Ron Howard’s ‘Apollo 13’ movie and everybody knows the saying,” McKinney said. “And, you know, ‘Houston, the Eagle has landed’ – those were the first words spoken on Moon July 20, 1969.

“But yeah, we get along, you know, we’re a-okay with it,” McKinney said. “Houstonians are very, very, very laid-back, very flexed. Kind of like Austin, we’ve got a really cool vibe here.”

What about the 1965 recording of a song called “Houston” written by Lee Hazlewood and sung by Dean Martin? Martin was from Steubenville, Ohio, by the way – not sure if there was ever a song called “Steubenville,” but Dino would’ve been the guy to sing it.

Mister McKinney says that in Houston – where Beyoncé, Lizzo, and even Megan Thee Stallion all have roots – Dino’s particular paean is a hometown favorite, too.

“You know, we don’t have a lot of theme songs and anthems, but that Dean Martin song is definitely one of them,” McKinney said. “People know that song very, very well. I recognize that song and I love that song, too. It’s not played as much as it used to be and it’s not one of Dean Martin’s hits, but it’s definitely a song that people do recognize.

“So, yeah,” McKinney said. “It’s a fun little tune.”

Of course, here in the Northwest, we have our own ‘fun little tune’: the Perry KIRO (that’s what J.P. Patches always called him) version of “(The Bluest Skies You’ve Ever Seen Are In) Seattle.” Everyone loves it, knows all the words by heart, and, if you’re like me, ritualistically sings it every day with their families.

However, it just may be time to set Perry aside and temporarily adopt Dean Martin’s rendition of “Houston” – with its “Goin’ back to Houston” chorus – as a powerful yet oh-so-time-sensitive Seattle anthem.

Can you think of a group of guys who, depending on what happens Saturday and then Sunday at T-Mobile Park, might be headed back to ‘Space City’ in a few days to take care of business at a place formerly known as Enron Field?

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

Feliks Banel

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History of ‘Space City’ — ‘Goin’ Back to Houston, Houston, Houston’