On April 9, 1965, a sell-out crowd of 48,000 spectators watched Dick “Turk” Farrell throw out the first pitch at an exhibition baseball game between the Yankees and the newly rechristened Houston Astros—the first sporting event in what had already been dubbed the Astrodome. But as he watched the game from his opulent private office overlooking right field, Judge Roy Hofheinz had other things on his mind. Namely: what was he going to do with the Dome during the approximately 285 days a year when it wasn’t hosting Astros games? (The Oilers wouldn’t arrive for another three years).
The answer came in the form of a 33-year-old insurance salesman named Allen Becker. Together with his friend Sidney Shlenker, Becker convinced Hofheinz that he could lure Houstonians to the Dome year-round with a variety of spectacles. Destruction derbys. Daredevil stunts by Evel Knievel. Bloodless bull fights by matadors with Velcro-tipped lances.
“He was looking for unusual events,” recalled the 82-year-old Becker, leaning back in his chair in a 12th-floor conference room overlooking the Waterwall. We were in the Galleria-area headquarters of ACE Theatrical Group, the current incarnation of PACE (Presentations, Associations, Conventions, and Exhibitions), a company Becker and Shlenker founded shortly after scoring the Astrodome contract.
How did an insurance salesman know how to stage Colosseum-scale spectacles? “I really didn’t,” Becker said. “We tried a lot of things that didn’t work.” Still, enough things proved successful—like the Houston International Boat Show, now held at NRG Center, a few hundred yards away from the vacant Dome—that when the Pontiac, Michigan Silverdome, the New Orleans Superdome, and the Seattle Kingdome were built, their owners came knocking on Becker’s door. (Shlenker left the company in 1968 and died in 2003.)
“There were all these domes being built, and we were the only ones who had planned events for domes,” Becker said. “So I got on airplanes and made deals.” When developer Kenneth Schnitzer opened Houston’s Summit in 1975, Becker began programming events there as well, including concerts by top acts like The Who.
In the early ’80s, Becker came up with the idea of turning Broadway musicals into national touring productions that would hit the mid-size cities that productions often skipped. “In Lexington, Kentucky, these people don’t see Broadway,” said Becker's son Gary, who joined the company in the mid-'70s “San Antonio. New Orleans. You go to middle America and you tour Broadway shows that they just don’t see. So we would invest $1 million in a show like The King & I. We’d lose the million dollars, because most Broadway shows don’t make money, but we’d get the touring rights, and we made money that way.”
In 1988 another Becker company, Arts Center Enterprises, helped renovate and subsequently manage San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre, a grand 1929 movie palace that had fallen into decrepitude. Becker’s company subsequently partnered with a Washington, DC architecture firm to renovate historic theaters across the country, including the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, the Boston Opera House, and Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre, which reopened to great acclaim in February.
Surprisingly, one of Becker's few failures came in his hometown. In the late ’80s his company renovated Houston’s Tower Theater, a 1936 movie theater on Westheimer near Montrose, which hosted the campy murder mystery Shear Madness for a year before ACE decided that the theater wasn’t profitable enough and sold it. Today the Tower and its distinctive neon marquee are home to Tex-Mex restaurant El Real.
At its peak in the ’90s, PACE was one of the largest entertainment companies in the country, with around 30 theaters under management, offices in nine cities, and around 700 employees. Then, in 1999, Allen Becker received a lucrative offer to sell the company to SFX Entertainment—one that was too good to turn down, although Becker retained a few of the company’s holdings. In 2009, the Beckers helped form the ACE Theatrical Group, which has helped develop the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans and the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn; it currently manages the Majestic and Empire Theatres in San Antonio and the Mahalia Jackson Theatre in New Orleans.
But the Beckers—Allen, two of his sons, and one son-in-law now work at the company—may have one more trick up their sleeve. In December they broke ground on the largest project in company history, a state-of-the-art $84 million performing arts center in Sugar Land. Featuring an innovative system of moveable walls, the Smart Financial Centre will be configurable for 3,400, 4,500, or 6,400 spectators at the touch of a button. According to ACE CEO David Anderson, it meets a need for a mid-size theater—something between the House of Blues and the Toyota Center.
“Shows are bypassing the Houston market, or they’re playing in inappropriate venues,” Anderson told us. “We’re going to offer a really beautiful, 6,400-seat theater that’s going to look and feel like a theater, not like a warehouse.”
For the Becker family, though, the Sugar Land theater is about more than filling a market niche. It’s about cementing their legacy. “People would always say, ‘Why is the biggest entertainment company [in the country] in Houston?’” Gary Becker said. “It’s our home—it’s where we live, it’s where we were raised. So Sugar Land has given us an opportunity to continue our love for the city. This is really a very big thing for us. The Summit was built by Schnitzer, the Pavilion was built by Mitchell, and the Astrodome was built by Hofheinz. So now we get to do something of our own.”