One of the many things we love about living near Chicago, is its active and varied theater life. There are so many theaters there, large and small, that's there's always something to see whenever the mood strikes. And after you've been a customer, the e-mails start coming luring us in with special deals. It almost makes us want to turn north and head back into the snow. So when we read that Houston is the second largest theater city in the country, we rubbed our hands together with glee. But when we bought the local paper, the pickings were slim. We found a new comedy basked on Alfred Hitchcock's film 39 Steps, which is coming to Chicago a bit later in the year and decided to give that a try.
Some cities have a very obvious down town, but Houston seems sprawling and disconnected, so we were happy to find a walking tour in the theater area that would give an introduction to what this place was about. Even better was the fact that we were the only two people on the tour, so we had a chance to get all our questions answered.
As we drove toward the city we passed mile after mile of ugliness. What looked like it might be distant skyscrapers turned out to be towers from refineries billowing smoke into the sky. There were acres and acres of storage tanks. With our current dependance on oil, this sort of activity needs to be going on somewhere, but living nearby seems like it must be hazardous to your health. Houston has the big city traffic we are used to at home and it's always a bit harrowing when you're not sure where you're going, but as usual the GPS brought us to the historic district as if we were natives. The first surprise was how cheap it was to park there - 25% of the usual downtown Chicago price. The streets were quiet and there were few people walking around. Maybe people just don't walk here.
Our tour guide has found a unique angle to display her city - its tunnel system. Some cold weather cities like Minneapolis and Quebec have built tunnel and overhead sidewalk systems to keep people out of the weather. The tunnels in Houston have the same effect in the summer heat and humidity, but here each tunnel was built by the company that owns the building above it for its own employees. They had retail stores and places to eat. Eventually some of the tunnels were connected, but they are still privately owned and maintained.There is no overall organizational plan. This can mean that one company can decide to take a day off on President's Day, lock its tunnel, and everyone else who is trying to use it to get to the next tunnel is out of luck. In these post 9/11 days these tunnels have become vulnerable to terrorism, so our guide feels fortunate that she is still allowed to conduct her tours there. And it also meant that we were not allowed to take photographs. How a photo of a restaurant would help terrorists is a mystery to me, but these are paranoid times. As we walked the looks and widths of the tunnels changed, letting us know that we were beneath a different building. Some were lavishly decorated with marble and others looked utilitarian. but you'll have to take my word for it. No photos allowed.
We went up in two of the skyscrapers for views of the city, but were only allowed to photograph from one. Again - ??? As you would expect they were all built by oil companies and banks. Most were modern glass looking and the overall architectural effect made me think of many big cities - not all that distinctive. It was amazing to see another cluster of equally large cluster of skyscrapers a few miles away, also part of Houston. Our guide explained that Houston is over 750 square miles in size. That's one way to have a big city. It's as is if Chicago gobbled up fifty of the collar suburbs and called them part of the city. She also explained that Houston is a big theater city based on the number of seats, not on the number of theaters. That's a matter of opinion, but I prefer our smaller venues where you can see the expressions on the actor's faces, rather than sitting with binoculars in a venue that holds 3,000. Recently Houston has built a nice light rail system, so at the end of the walking tour we could ride back to the theater and enjoy a play at last.