50 Years of Firsts presented by Beth Wolff Realtors
NASA is in the world spotlight this summer, the 50th anniversary of its Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. But why stop with celebrating the city’s lunar legacy? From Astros and Academy Awards to Zina Garrison and ZZ Top, here’s a timeline touting a half-century of other audacious achievements in Houston. By James Glassman, Photos by Dionne Christiansen
1969 On July 20, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, under the direction of NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston, become the first people to walk on the Moon, meeting President Kennedy’s 1961 goal of sending a man to the lunar surface, and returning him safely to Earth, before 1970.
1970 ZZ Top plays its first gig Feb. 10, in Beaumont. The Houston band will become one of the 100 top-selling artists of all time and earn a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
1971 The final plans for Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts are approved in May. It’s the first attempt by any public high school in America to correlate an academic program with concentrated arts training.
1972 Houston’s Barbara Jordan is elected to Congress on Nov. 7, becoming the first African American woman from the South to do so. (She’ll be honored on a postage stamp 39 years later.)
1973 Some 90 million people worldwide tune in on Sept. 20 to watch the televised “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match at the Astrodome. Billy Jean King beats Bobby Riggs in straight sets.
1974 The Miami Dolphins dominate the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl VIII on Jan. 13 at Rice Stadium. The NFL championship will return in 2004 — and in 2017, when the New England Patriots will come from 25 points behind to beat the Atlanta Falcons, the first time the game will ever be decided in overtime.
1975 AstroWorld, which opened in 1968, becomes a Six Flags amusement park. It will later debut many famous attractions, like 1976’s Texas Cyclone — among the tallest and fastest wooden roller coasters ever — and 1980’s Thunder River, the world’s first river-rapids ride.
1976 Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex on Earth, continues innovating: On Aug. 1, Memorial Hermann debuts Life Flight, America’s second helicopter ambulance service, and the first launched by a private hospital.
1977 About 20,000 leaders including Betty Friedan, Coretta Scott King and three first ladies join the National Women’s Conference in Houston Nov. 18-21 to discuss the feminist movement. A few miles away, Phyllis Schlafly’s counter-rally of 15,000 conservative women is also held. The dueling meetings will come to be seen as the beginning of an enduring political schism among women.
1978 On Jan. 21, the nation’s first Martin Luther King Jr. Parade rolls down South Park Boulevard, southeast of Downtown. On April 5, the thoroughfare is officially renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard.
1979 After four years of fits and starts and smaller marches, Houston’s first official Gay Pride Parade rolls up Westheimer Road on July 1. The annual celebration will become one of the city’s largest annual cultural mega-events — second only to the Rodeo — and the only sanctioned nighttime Pride parade in America. It will relocate to Downtown in 2015.
1980 Filmed and set in Houston locales such as Gilley’s club, Urban Cowboy premieres on June 6. The movie, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger, will make mechanical bulls and so-called “softcore” country-pop crossover music worldwide phenoms.
1981 Beyoncé, a child of the Third Ward, is born in Houston on Sept. 4. By mid-2019, she’ll sell 170 million records and win 23 Grammys, with The New Yorker having called her “the most important and compelling popular musician of the twenty-first century.”
1982 On Feb. 16, Compaq is founded in Houston and will become the largest supplier of PC systems in the world in the ’90s. Its reign will end in the early 2000s, due largely to competition from Dell, a Texas Hill Country company founded by Houstonian Michael Dell.
1983 Founded by local artists, DiverseWorks holds its first exhibition Feb. 7-10, beginning its work as a national leader in commissioning and presenting daring new art intended to further cross-cultural understanding and, per its mission statement, “invigorate” Houston.
1984 On April 9, at the 56th Academy Awards in L.A., the Houston-set and Houston-filmed Terms of Endearment wins five Oscars, including Best Picture.
1985 At the Astrodome on July 12, Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan becomes the first Major League pitcher to throw 4,000 career strikeouts.
1986 Intended to celebrate the city’s 150th birthday, the Rendez-vous Houston concert on April 5 evolves into an impromptu memorial for the astronauts lost in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster two months earlier. Featuring French New Age star Jean Michel Jarre and staged dramatically among Downtown skyscrapers, it draws nearly 1.5 million people, earning the Guinness record as the world’s largest outdoor rock concert of its era.
1987 The Menil Collection — an art museum designed by international starchitect Renzo Piano to house philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil’s priceless antiquities, tribal pieces and works by Picasso, Warhol, Pollock and many other masters — opens in Montrose on June 4. Unique in that it’s open to the public for free, it’s cited among the world’s best collections.
1988 Houston’s tennis superstar Zina Garrison wins a gold medal and a bronze medal at the Summer Olympics in Seoul. Her career highlight will come two years later, when she will be the first African American woman to reach the singles finals at Wimbledon, ultimately losing to Martina Navratilova.
1989 On Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C., Houston’s George H.W. Bush is inaugurated as the 41st president.
1990 In April, Frank Sinatra headlines the opening of Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands. Over the years, it will grow to seat 16,500, and will, in 2016, overtake the Hollywood Bowl as the world’s No. 1 amphitheater in ticket sales.
1991 In September — 27 years after Houston heart surgeon Michael DeBakey performed the world’s first bypass procedure, and 23 years after Houston’s Denton Cooley performed one of the nation’s first heart transplants — the Texas Heart Institute releases the first patient ever with a portable, battery-powered heart pump.
1992 Robert Del Grande of Café Annie becomes the first Houston chef to win a James Beard Award. He won’t be the last; a trio of top chefs — Chris Shepherd, Justin Yu and Hugo Ortega — will win between 2014 and 2017, highlighting Houston’s meteoric rise as major foodie city.
1993 In February, at her first Houston Rodeo concert at the Astrodome, Selena sets a new attendance record. The beautiful Tejano singer will repeat in 1994, breaking her own record from the year before, and yet again in ’95 with another new record. She’ll be murdered a month after the 1995 performance, cementing her place forever in the pantheon of tragic superstars.
1994 Featuring a 50-foot waterfall, a simulated rainforest and hundreds of species of exotic butterflies and insects, the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Cockrell Butterfly Center opens in July. In the ’90s, HMNS begins to count its annual visitors in seven figures, and it will soon find its routine place among the 10 most-visited museums in America.
1995 Playing at home on June 14, Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets beat Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic, 113-101, concluding a four-game sweep to win the NBA Finals. It’s the second of back-to-back titles for the team.
1996 Nearly three decades after Newsweek declared the Alley Theatre’s opening of its famous brutalist-style building in Downtown “another step … toward ending Broadway’s domination of the American theatre,” the venerable Houston company is honored on June 2 as the nation’s best regional theater at the 50th annual Tony Awards in New York.
1997 After years reigning as the fastest man alive — having won nine Olympic gold medals and one silver, plus 10 world championships — UH Cougar alum Carl Lewis retires. He will call Houston home for years to come.
1998 The Chukwu octuplets, only the fifth set of octuplets ever born, and the first to have seven of the eight survive infancy, arrive at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, over 12 days in December.
1999 On March 4, Houston Ballet presents the world premiere of Indigo by young Aussie choreographer Stanton Welch. It’s a fateful first encounter, as Welch will in four years’ time be named its artistic director, propelling the company’s international profile yet higher. Houston Ballet is the country’s fourth-largest ballet company, and it oversees one of the top ballet academies in the world.
2000 In March, the Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Pritzker Prize laureate Rafael Moneo to house masterworks of Europe and more, opens on the main campus of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to great praise; The New York Times calls it a “stunning surprise.” Acclaim is not unusual for MFAH, which is the oldest museum in Texas, with 64,000 works in the permanent collection, spanning six continents and 6,000 years.
2001 Tropical Storm Allison savagely deluges Houston June 5-9. Causing $5 billion in damage and claiming 22 lives in the area, it’s the first test of the city’s resilience after mega-storm flooding. Because of its severity, the World Meteorological Organization will in 2002 retire the name Allison, the first such retirement for a non-hurricane.
2002 In the first overall pick of the NBA draft on June 26, the Rockets select Yao Ming. The Chinese center will achieve international pop-culture stardom, and go on to become the only player from outside the U.S. to lead the NBA in All-Star votes. And, at 7-foot-6, he’ll be the tallest active player in the game for a time.
2003 WordPress, an open-source management system for web content, is released on May 27. Co-founded by Houstonian and UH dropout Matt Mullenweg, WordPress will become the most popular website management system on Earth.
2004 America’s first traditional Hindu mandir, or temple — consisting of 33,000 pieces of hand-carved Italian marble and Turkish limestone and constructed according to guidelines outlined in ancient scriptures — opens in the Houston suburb of Stafford. It’s one of the largest such mandirs in America.
2005 At the behest of his close friend Lynn Wyatt, Elton John headlines a gala concert and dinner at the Wortham theater on April 30 to mark the 50th anniversary of Houston Grand Opera. There’s a lot to celebrate over a half-century, including HGO’s several dozen world premieres — and its multiple Emmys and Grammys, and a Tony.
2006 Texas Children’s Hospital begins its Vision 2010 expansion plan, the most ambitious such plan ever embarked upon by a children’s hospital. Over the next four years, at a cost of $1.5 billion, it will add seven floors to its main research tower, construct a separate institute for neurological research, establish a women’s health facility, and build, in Katy, suburban Houston’s first full-service hospital for kids.
2007 On Nov. 18, the Houston Dynamo pro soccer team wins the MLS Cup for the second year in a row, in only its second year in existence — a feat accomplished only once previously in MLS, and never since.
2008 Two years after surviving one of the many heart procedures that he invented himself, famed Houston heart surgeon and inventor Michael DeBakey dies on July 11, two months shy of his 100th birthday, and becomes the first to lie in repose in City Hall.
2009 After serving three terms as the city’s controller, Annise Parker is elected its top executive on Dec. 12, making Houston the largest U.S. city to this date — by far — to elect an openly gay mayor.
2010 On Aug. 29, Houston-raised thespian Jim Parsons of TV’s The Big Bang Theory wins his first Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Over the following four years he’ll win three more times, tying a record for most wins ever with Michael J. Fox, Kelsey Grammer and Carroll O’Connor.
2011 The Houston Texans pick University of Wisconsin defensive end JJ Watt in the first round of the draft on April 28. Watt will win AP’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award three of his first five seasons and, thanks to his efforts to raise millions to help Houston recover from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, will be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year.
2012 A project of the venerable Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, Houston’s 25th annual Art Car Parade — the oldest and largest art car parade and mobile folk-art exhibit on Earth — rolls through Downtown on May 12.
2013 The U.S. Department of Commerce reports in July that Houston is the new national leader in exports, surpassing New York, with $110.3 billion in merchandise shipped.
2014 For the fifth year in a row, U-Haul names Houston its top destination city, highlighting Houston’s status as the nation’s fastest growing major city — the metro area adds nearly 160,000 people in 2014 alone, and will match it in 2015 — and its sterling economic performance throughout the Great Recession.
2015 In April, USA Today names the Texas Renaissance Festival, which attracts hundreds of thousands of people to 55 acres of open fields north of Houston every fall, the Best Cultural Festival in the United States.
2016 The University of Houston’s five-year-old status as a Tier One research institution is reconfirmed on Feb. 2, solidifying the fast-growing university’s status as a world-class school. Only 115 of the country’s 4,700 universities qualify for the top classification.
2017 Twelve years after bringing the World Series to Texas for first time, and then losing inauspiciously to the White Sox, the Astros win the homerun-hittingest series ever, beating the Dodgers in Game 7 in L.A. on Nov. 1. It’s a first for the then 55-year-old ’Stros — and a joyful victory shared by the entire city, rocked by Hurricane Harvey just two months earlier.
2018 On Oct. 1, researcher Jim Allison of the nation’s top cancer center, M.D. Anderson in Houston, wins the Nobel Prize for his work in immunotherapy, stimulating the body’s own immune system to attack tumor cells. This is the second Nobel Prize for Houston, coming 22 years after a pair of Rice chemists won for pioneering nanotechnology.