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A farewell tribute to an old friend

Lifelong AstroWorld fan documents park's destruction with a hand-held camera
July 11, 2007
Houston Chronicle

Every March for almost 30 years, David Purdie waited in the same line at the same supermarket on West Gray to buy an AstroWorld season pass.

In 1978, the laminated tickets promising limitless fun from March through October cost just $20. Purdie, then 13, and his best friend mowed lawns in the Houston heat, sold Kool-Aid and comic books, and spent their profits on the passes. Prices rose steadily, but the two friends continued to go back year after year, finally paying $52 in 2005.

Then Purdie heard the unimaginable - AstroWorld would close forever.

With the stomach-churning suddenness of a Texas Cyclone plunge, Purdie decided he had to preserve the memory of his favorite getaway. He purchased a home-video camera and started shooting. Two years later, he's ready to share the results with likely thousands of Houstonians who fondly recall the old South Loop amusement park.

``I knew that if it was true, that in the end AstroWorld was gone, I was going to want to have footage for myself to keep and cherish forever," said Purdie.

He returned to the park every weekend in October 2005, filming everything - the drive down Kirby, the footbridge hike over the Loop and the entire walk around the park.

Each trip reminded him of his childhood.

"I grew up in Houston, and I didn't grow up too far from the park, so I had a season pass in my pocket and a mother who would drive me there," he said. "It was always a good place to go and get a nice thrill. I'd go sometimes and just ride the Dungeon Drop a couple times and just come home."

`I just got hooked and loved it'

A week after the park closed for good, Purdie persuaded a friend to go back with him.

"I get there and I can see clearly that they started disassembling the Dungeon Drop. You could tell from the freeway, so I got out and started filming, and I got all excited and sad at the same time," he said. "I went back later that day. I went back the next day and the next day and the next day."

Purdie, a waiter at Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen, went back almost every day for seven months. He filmed mostly from the sidewalk and in a given day would stand outside the gates for 30 minutes or eight hours.

"By April (2006), AstroWorld was gone, but I went back a little bit in May and June and July," he said. "The grass grew really tall, and I filmed it. And they came back and mowed it all down, and I filmed that, too."

In all, he collected 150 hours of footage documenting the last days of AstroWorld and the destruction of all the rides. He'll continue following development of the land when new buildings pop up.

"I didn't plan any of this," he said. "And I just got hooked and loved it."

Historical value

Rice University architectural historian Stephen Fox said AstroWorld's historical significance relates to its association with the Astrodome and former Houston County Judge Roy Hofheinz, the prime mover behind the Dome and the related development of the South Loop.

Therefore, said Fox, Purdie's footage could be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in Houston.

"Although it was a popular culture site rather than a high culture site, AstroWorld certainly contributed to the kind of city Houston became in the 1960s," he explained.

Because AstroWorld stood for less than 50 years, it would not have qualified for the National Register of Historic Places. But that is only one way of establishing a site's historical status, and Fox acknowledged that for many Houstonians AstroWorld doesn't need any official designation.

"The dismay experienced by Houston children - and generations of former children - when the complex was closed and demolished is for me just as good an indication of AstroWorld's cultural significance as a Houston landmark," Fox said. "It was part of the collective memory of Houstonians for nearly 40 years."

Capturing footage

Although Purdie took most of his footage from outside the park, he managed to get inside seven times after it closed.

"I made a lot of friends," he said. Construction workers would pick him up and take him for a tour of the park. One time, after an auction, he and a friend walked around the park unescorted. Purdie saw no police tape or people telling them to keep out.

"I told (my friend) when we got to the Bamboo Chute, `I can remember being a kid and wishing that I could be the only person at AstroWorld.' So here we are, the only people at AstroWorld, but we can't ride anything."

Eventually the two were escorted back to the auction site. Purdie bought four signs for about $30 each and put them up in his bedroom, along with four vintage AstroWorld maps that he bought for about $100 each on eBay. Other souvenirs include an AstroWorld T-shirt, yearbooks, a license plate, an ashtray, a lighter and matches.

Purdie, a 42-year-old man given to puka-bead necklaces and jeans with holes in the pockets, loves surrounding himself in childhood memorabilia. In addition to the AstroWorld mementos, 'N Sync dolls hang from the ceiling of his bedroom, and dolls of all four members of Kiss are enshrined in their original plastic.

"AstroWhirled"

Purdie has now pared some of his favorite AstroWorld footage into a three-minute short, AstroWhirled. He offered it to a Houston short-film festival.

"It was a good opportunity for me to play with my footage, and it might be a good way to get my feet wet," he said.

But Purdie's film didn't make the festival's cut, so he's trying to get the River Oaks Theatre to run it Saturday, before the midnight showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." (At press time, theater officials were not sure they would use it.)

In the short film, Purdie falls asleep dreaming of going to AstroWorld. But when he gets there, it's being torn up.

"And I wake up and it's jut a dream, but of course it wasn't," he said.

The film shows a blur of children running through the park. It features the unmistakable clank of a roller-coaster car making its way up the wooden track. Then it cuts dramatically to a shot of the coaster being smashed by a giant backhoe.

Learning for the future

Purdie doesn't have a formal education in film. To help figure out what he wants to do with the footage, he enrolled in two filmmaking classes through Leisure Learning and attended a 10-hour seminar at Rice. He intends to participate in more classes.

He said the Art Car Museum asked to use some of the footage in an upcoming exhibit, but Purdie might keep his best footage under wraps, for a documentary he wants to make.

"I'd love to put together something that could be enjoyed and loved and remembered forever," he said. "For Houstonians."

...

A few tokens of days spent at the park

PLANNING AHEAD: A souvenir calendar for counting down days until the next visit.

ENTRY PASS: A key to a suite at the hotel.

FINE CHINA: Vintage saucer and plate from AstroWorld.

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chron.com A Houston icon comes tumbling down

See the public premiere of AstroWhirled at www. chron.com/life