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Sidney Shlenker, 66; Entrepreneur Staged Astrodome Events

Times Staff Writer

Sidney Shlenker, the flamboyant entrepreneur who once owned the Denver Nuggets and was chief executive of the Houston Astrodome’s parent company, has died. He was 66.

Shlenker, who suffered a spinal-cord injury in a 1998 highway accident that left him a paraplegic, died of heart failure Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Before his accident, he had created an eclectic corporate profile over four decades.

As co-founder, with Allen Becker, of Houston-based Pace Management Corp. in 1966, he began producing commercial events at the new Astrodome during the off-season -- everything from demolition derbies and motorcycle races to bullfights and gospel shows.

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By 1990, the renamed Pace Entertainment was producing in a single year 10 road productions of Broadway shows, 300 rock ‘n’ roll concerts, 90 motorcycle races and assorted tractor pulls and other motorized events around the country.

The company also owned several theaters and invested in Broadway shows, including the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Although he maintained a 45% ownership in Pace until the early ‘90s, when he sold his share to Becker, Shlenker left the day-to-day operations of the privately held company in 1968 and took charge of marketing and sales for the Astrodome.

He brought heavyweight fights and other events to the world’s first domed stadium. But his promotional piece de resistance may have been securing the rights to the 1973 tennis match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The so-called “Battle of the Sexes” drew 33,000 paying customers to the Astrodome, one of the largest crowds ever to watch a tennis match.

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After the Astrodome’s builder, Judge Roy Hofheinz, suffered a stroke in 1975, Shlenker was made chief executive and president of Astrodomain Corp., the Astrodome’s parent organization. In so doing, he became president of the Houston Astros baseball club.

In 1982, Shlenker became minority owner of the Houston Rockets basketball team.

Three years later, he sold his share of the Rockets and purchased the Denver Nuggets for $20 million from fellow Texan Red McCombs, a friend and sometime business partner. The deal was consummated during a 30-minute phone call.

Four years later, Shlenker sold the Colorado basketball team for $65 million.

That same year, he turned his attention to the Pyramid, a 20,300-seat arena in Memphis, Tenn. City officials hired him to manage the pyramid-shaped arena and develop it into a world-class attraction, complete with a rock ‘n’ roll museum, a Hard Rock Cafe and amusement rides.

“It’s going to be a monument like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower -- a signature for the city,” Shlenker told the New York Times. “The difference is, this will have something inside it.”

But in 1991, Shlenker was ousted as manager of the Pyramid after failing to obtain financing for his share of the project. The companies that he was involved with on the project later filed for bankruptcy protection.

Shlenker was born in Monroe, La., on Aug. 14, 1936. Two years later, his family moved to Houston, where his father, Irvin, who had become wealthy in the liquor business and real estate, purchased Houston National Bank.

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Sidney Shlenker attended Tulane University in New Orleans, but he was not a good student and, as he told Denver Business, “I quit them before they quit me.”

He had worked his way up from teller to vice president in charge of installment loans at his father’s bank when he teamed up with his friend Becker, then an insurance salesman, to convince a client to sponsor a boat show in the newly opened Astrodome in 1966. The show earned the fledgling event producers about $9,000 each, and they were on their way.

“He was a brilliant promoter,” said Becker, who was Shlenker’s partner in many of his business ventures, including ownership of the Nuggets and a number of TV stations. “He was just one of those characters who make things happen.”

In 1995, Shlenker found himself caught up in one of the country’s most notorious trials: the federal prosecution of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.

To prove that Fleiss had laundered ill-gotten gains, prosecutors had Shlenker, actor Charlie Sheen and Mexican businessman Manuel Santos testify under a grant of limited immunity that they had written the checks that were produced in court by three of Fleiss’ prostitutes.

Shlenker is survived by his wife, Denise; children Joshua, Alana and Zachary; and sister Gay Block.


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