After 150 years of hype and hoopla about cowboys, Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire thinks it's time for a change.

According to a front-page article in the Houston Chronicle recently, the mayor, who never would be mistaken for someone who just rode into town, has quietly spread the word that she wants Houston to shuck the cowboy image in favor of the finer things in life.

She told the Chronicle:

"The city of Houston is a city of diversity. We have world-renowned contemporary architecture, as well as historical landmarks like the battleship Texas. We have a great ballet, as well as one of the largest rodeos, outstanding theater, opera, symphony and visual arts as well as the massive space center, the Astrodome and the Texas Medical Center."

"Our western heritage is an important facet of our image," she continued, "but it is only one dimension of a city that has many unique features."

George Grosz, chairman of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Council put things a bit more bluntly:

"I don't want to sell Houston as a cow town. Fort Worth does that, and they do a good job, and that's probably what they are. You can be sure he will never receive the key to the city of Fort Worth. But Houston is a cosmopolitan city, one of the few cities that has all the arts. I think we ought to capitalize on that and sell it as a world-class city."

In somewhat less earnest tones, the Texas Tourist Development Agency has the same thing in mind.

It recently launched an advertising campaign featured on the front page of the Austin American-Statesman and aimed at New York and Los Angeles.

The ads say not all Texans "like J.R., . . . do the cotton-eyed Joe, . . . own an oil well, . . . drive a pickup, . . . or remember the Alamo." Can you believe it?

These Texans apparently are alarmed that the Lone Star state cannot shake its stereotype, which is, in the words of Frank Hildebrand, that of "a John Wayne movie set . . . all cattle, cowboys and cactus, a big, flat state and little else."

Hildebrand, executive director of the tourist agency, knows about this stereotype not by instinct but through scientific evidence. His agency has paid for attitudinal surveys of Americans that have revealed this disturbing truth.

But Whitmire and the tourist board miss the point. Every city worth its salt boasts of its symphony and repertory theater.

But how many have their own battleship parked nearby? How many have a weeks-long rodeo as one of the main cultural attractions during the year? And how many are worthy of John Travolta two-stepping to glory in pointy-toed boots?

If all Texas has to offer is a regional version of the same menu found elsewhere, then what charm is left in the place? After all, despite Hildebrand's protestations, much of Texas is just a big, flat state and little else.

What is there for Texans who don't like J.R. Ewing or own an oil well or drive a pickup? Thankfully, the tourist board's advertising campaign answers that question. According to the ad copy, there are watermelon thumpings in Luling, black-eyed pea jamborees in Athens and the Armadillo Alympics in New Braunfels.

Maybe that's why the cowboy stereotype just can't be shucked