Fame City/Funplex

Houston’s Funplex as it appears in 2024.

Fame City was one of the first attempts at a modern “Entertainment Mall” developed by Dari Ansari, a Houston-based property developer. Ansari had an interesting background. Born in Iran in 1944, Dari moved to Minnesota at the age of 10, where he completed school, enrolling at the University of St. Paul, where he was also successful running back at the collegiate level, being invited to try out for the Vikings. While the team did not pick him up, Dari began a successful business career, owning the distribution rights to STP oil in Iran. In the wake of the 1979 revolution, Dari would return to the United States, likely attracted to Houston by the oil connection. Upon Ansari’s arrival in the Lone Star State, he began speculating on land, purchasing large tracts on Houston’s west side to resell for development. The plan was for Ansari to sprout development by building some residential and commercial properties on his tracts, encouraging other developers to jump on the property. However, these attempts had mixed results due to the 1980s Oil Glut. While Ansari had successfully sold off tracts on the Northwest side, the land he purchased adjacent to the Alief area proved to be a tough sale. This consisted specifically of a 700-acre tract along Beechnut between Dairy Ashford and Highway 6. While a few developers had started work on small parcels, large-scale residential development was largely a bust. One of the issues at the time was that residential development in the area was oversaturated. Nearby neighborhoods had been built by builders who went bankrupt, allowing the homes to go to auction. In fact, some of the earliest developments would spring adjacent to the future home of Fame City, but they were abandoned after only a few homes were built. However, over the years, the area eventually began to rebound. Ansari needed something to bring development to his land, and he had an idea. The world’s first so-called “Entertainment Mall.” The general concept was to combine a Family Entertainment Center with a mall.

The idea of an all-in-one entertainment mall can be credited to Dari Anasari, but his inspiration was likely drawn from other operators, including Nathan Elinoff, owner of Nathan’s Physical Whimsical. The family entertainment center combined carnival rides, games, and a jungle gym indoors. This allowed Physical Whimsical to operate throughout the freezing Colorado winters where the first location was. That climate-controlled concept would also be a selling point in Houston. The owner, Nathan Elinoff, was brought here after his brother, Neal Elinoff, had found success opening cookie and ice cream chains. In his time here, Nathan would establish two Physical Whimsical locations before franchising the name and returning to Colorado. Both locations were in malls. Sharpstown and San Jacinto opening 1985 and 1986, respectively. The concept was appealing, and the mall setting drove traffic as Sharpstown had just been remodeled, and San Jacinto was brand new. With a vision in mind, Dari Ansari’s plans would come to fruition under a company named “First Amusement Mall Enterprise,” giving birth to the name Fame City. Rather than fit into an existing mall, Ansari would build a 350,000 Sqft three-story “mall” facility with various entertainment options, rides, etc… mixed in alongside storefronts, restaurants, and even a bank branch. The ambitious plans would split construction into two phases. The first section would come in at 200k Sqft and contain most of the rides, a 40-lane bowling alley, roller skating rink, mini golf course, and a three-screen movie theater, all accessible through shared entrances and corridors. The second construction phase would add 150k sqft of retail mixed with Fame City’s corporate offices on the East side of the property. Dari Ansari saw Fame City as a concept that would be duplicated nationwide, with this first location serving as a template for future malls. While Ansari had the land to build Fame City, opting to pick up where home developments had left off, he would need a loan for construction. For this, he would mortgage the property and obtain loans from Western Bank, a local bank that was involved in lots of development at the time.

Construction on Fame City began in January 1986 to open that summer and quickly progressed. However, shortly after construction began, the project was modified a bit. The phase two expansion would be abandoned, and a Waterpark would instead be built on the adjacent land, named Fame City Waterworks. While it was never explained why this change was made, it did seem to be an apparent difficulty in attracting retail tenants to this new environment. This new plan would necessitate using some of the phase one space for offices and abandoning the bank branch. However, all of the major attractions that were initially planned would be constructed. Some of the phase two items were even reworked into the first phase, including carnival games, aerobic equipment, video games, party rooms, a recording studio, and a sound stage. Construction moved exceptionally quickly, with the goal of opening by summer looking promising. The first employees were recruited starting in March, and the plan was to poach from Astroworld and other nearby entertainment venues. While the facility was planned to operate 365 days a year, it would only be fully staffed in the summer, relying on full-time workers to man the less busy months. Construction costs had ballooned to $40 Million with the waterpark, but the move was smart, as it would allow Fame City to better position itself to compete with Astroworld and the newly opened Splashtown. The rush to complete everything would end up causing the need for some compromises. For example, all of the concession stands would be operated by Fame City as outside vendors could not be recruited on time. As well, Fame City would operate the movie theater itself, resulting in the movie house showing second-run pictures from the day it opened. Still, things were looking up for the world’s first entertainment mall, and the goal of opening by summer was looking promising. While an exact date wouldn’t be given, construction crews worked into the first weeks of June to finish every last detail.

On June 12, 1986, Fame City opened in Houston, Texas, as America’s first and only Entertainment Mall. The grand opening was quite the spectacle, and Fame City hired a husband-and-wife skywriting team to promote the new business. Visits would also be made by Fred Flintstone, Scooby Doo, and Yogi Bear, who had unceremoniously been kicked out of Hana Barbera Land when it closed to become Splashtown. While it had not turned out exactly as planned, there’s no doubt that Fame City was popular. The 40-lane bowling alley was a draw to community members of all ages and one of the first in the area. It had actually opened a couple of months before the rest of the facility and proved to be a money maker from day one. The opinion of families seemed to be that there was plenty to do. The carnival rides were popular with younger children, the playground and aerobic rides with the middle group, and the video games were a draw for the teenagers. The waterpark was also quite popular, filling to capacity on most days during the first summer. However, one item was noticeably vacant, and that was retail. It seems the only “true retail” to ever operate from the Entertainment Mall was a short-lived Fantastic Sams. In true mall fashion, you had to get to it by going through the main entrance, but it did not require admission and was open during normal business hours. The first summer of Fame City proved to be a success, and while business cooled over the fall and winter, things still looked good. However, unfortunate circumstances were beginning to brew for Fame City as early as 1987. One of the major supporters of the project was Western Bank, which presumably was the bank that offered a tenant spot when the mall was to be built. Western Bank had experienced some major financial turmoil and, as a result, collapsed in late 1987. At the time, it was the largest bank failure in Houston’s history.

Despite the bank failing, Fame City was not in immediate danger. The changes that would occur would be more on the back end, with the FDIC deciding to take control of Western Bank’s operations and assets. The plan would be to keep operating everything as normal, which included continuing to pay off the mortgage on the property that Ansari had previously owned. Around this time, Dari Ansari began to see some of the issues with operating your own mall. As a property operator plus landlord, he was essentially playing double duty. While the business was not struggling to make money, it was, in some ways, becoming the ire of the community. Specifically, the late-night nature of the club, movie theater, and bowling alley began to draw away from the family reputation enjoyed during the day. This, and the financial woes of property ownership, shifted Ansari’s thinking. Rather than build a new mall around his concept, why not take his new concept into a mall? Physical Whimsical was doing great business in their malls, so in 1989, Dari Ansari announced plans to start work on three new mall-based Fame City locations. The locations were Eastwood Mall in Youngstown, OH, the Webster Deauville Mall, and a 100k Sqft location in Memorial City Mall, which was already under construction. Ansari planned to search for more mall partners by showcasing Fame City at a Mall and Shopping Center expo. He felt that Houston could eventually hold up to four Fame City locations, with The Woodlands being an opportunity he had parroted since before the first location had even opened. While construction would never start on the other locations, Ansari had ambitious plans for Memorial City. To find 100k Sqft of space, he was forced to take up multiple sections of the mall, resulting in three discontinuous spaces. However, just like the previous concept, no admission was required, meaning all one would have to do to get from space to space is simply walk across a mall corridor.

Despite being less than half the size of the original Fame City, the new Memori City location would still pack quite a lot into its space. They would feature many of the same carnival, arcade, and aerobic rides. Another section also houses mini golf, a skating rink, and go-karts. Notably absent, however, were a movie theater and bowling alley. While lots was being done to ready the Memorial Mall location, the original Fame City wasn’t forgotten and received a few new items, including the infamous “Spiderweb” at the Waterworks. The Memorial City location held a week-long grand opening celebration and was equally as well received as the original location. However, as soon as August hit, the traffic at this location dropped significantly, becoming a veritable ghost town by wintertime. While Fame City Memorial City would see a jump in traffic during the holidays and again at Spring Break, this location was losing money hand over foot. In February 1990, Sun Global Ltd., Ansari’s development company and the parent company of Fame City, filed for bankruptcy. As a result of the bankruptcy filing, the Memorial City Mall location would quietly close at the end of May. Items in the mall location would be placed up for auction in June, and anything not sold would be left behind for the landlord to deal with. Mall owner Metro National was left in a daze and quickly worked with San Aatonio-based Jungle Jim’s to convert the space into a franchise of theirs. In October 1989, Fame City stopped paying its mortgage, and the FDIC quickly foreclosed on the property. Realizing this was a special case, Fame City was allowed to then begin paying a discounted rent to ensure money was not being lost on the investment. However, Fame City could not cover these costs, still trying to pay down debt from the Memorial City location, mostly related to the buildout, while dealing with extremely low traffic during the winter time. This was essentially an unrecoverable situation, and in December 1990, the FDIC sued Fame City.

At the end of 1990, Dari Ansari was still President and owner of Fame City, but that was about to change quickly. A few weeks into the new year, the FDIC was officially in control of Fame City. This would also remove Dari Ansari from the picture completely and have the FDIC form an operation company headed by a former SeaWorld San Antonio employee, Susan Fox, under the guidance of Transwestern Property Management. The first priority of the new company was to right the ship by regaining lost market share. The FDIC would even earmark $500,000 to begin advertising again and add new activities to Fame City. The FDIC had sunk tons of money into Fame City and wanted to get a return by selling to another operator. They would find their man once again in Denver, Colorado. This time, though, it would be Robert “Bob” Chado. Bob had started in life as a roller rink operator and had become quite a success in Denver. He wanted to take this success to the next level, and about a year after Fame City opened in Houston, Chado began working on a similar concept of his own. While not an entertainment mall, it would combine a Family Entertainment Center with a roller rink named Funplex. Chado had also fallen victim to a bank failure through Silverado S&L. The FDIC worked with Chado to help him regain control of his facility, and seeing confidence in him, and in early 1991, made him an offer for the facility in Houston, which he quickly took. By the end of 1991, the transformation from Fame City to Funplex was complete, although locals would continue to call the facility Fame City for years. It also did not help that neighbor Fame City Waterwork was not affected by the peril of the main even operated under the Fame City Waterworks name until 1993, before it was sold and renamed Adventure Bay. Operating under the name “Chado’s Funplex,” not much would change for Fame City. It seems that while the marketing initiative did win back enough business to keep the doors open, Funplex was not considered the great deal Fame City was.

One thing that greatly hurt the success of Funplex was the proliferation of chain Family Entertainment Centers, like Discovery Zone and Chuck E Cheese. Still, Funplex soldiered along, likely again helped by the bowling alley. In 1995, the next big development in the area would begin, with the land adjacent to Funplex being sold to a company that planned to develop an outdoor event arena there. It was called the Texas Cultural Pavilion and included three large outdoor stages. While the land had once been part of Ansari’s tract, the new venture held no direct relationship to Funplex. However, they did indicate they would hold a working relationship, with the venue relying on Funplex for parking. The idea once again seemed to stem from a developer wanting to seed traffic with a reason to be there. The venue idea was apt, as nothing else really existed in the area at the time, and it is still the case as of 2024. While the TCP had been promoted as a great outdoor space, less than a year from opening, it was home to a semi-permanent flea market and, within about a year, had closed with most pieces of the venue being sold off. The idea to seed traffic had once again failed, and development in the area crawled at a snail’s pace. In 1998, Funplex Colorado planned to file for bankruptcy citing competition as being one of the largest factors. The Texas location was technically a separate company and thus insulated from the bankruptcy filing. However, with Bob Chado approaching retirement age and likely needing the cash, he would sell Houston’s Funplex by the end of the year. At this point, the story becomes murky. A national property developer purchased the land and coaxed Namco into running the arcade. However, this only lasted a few years. Funplex would change hands a few times over the next few years, with, again, not much changing. In 2014, concerns were brought by the Fire Marshall over the condition of the building. However, those have not resurfaced. As of 2024, Funplex is still in operation, featuring many day-one attractions like the Ferris Wheel, Rollerink, Bowling Alley, and lots of original decor.