Texas Rangers finally succeeded in eliminating gambling at Galveston’s
famed Balinese Room in 1957, but it took a Category 2 hurricane to
cashier the old casino-on-a-pier once and for all.
Coming ashore on Galveston Island in the predawn hours of Sept. 13,
Hurricane Ike pushed a towering storm surge that beat the Balinese
Room worse than a guy betting a full house against a straight flush.
When the sun came up on Sept. 13 all that remained of the 79-year-old
National Historic Landmark were the pilings that once supported a
pier that extended 600 feet into the Gulf and a pile of debris that
included the old joint’s famous red door.
|What's left of
the Balinese Room after Hurricane Ike
Photo courtesy Julian A. Levy, Jr., Nov. 2008
|Oh, one other
thing survived, at least in the early days following the storm – the
club’s Web site. Visiting www.balineseroom.net less than 24 hours
after the club’s destruction was almost as painful as listening to
a dead friend’s voice on their not-yet-erased answering machine message.
Hopefully, the club’s latest owner has managed to salvage some artifacts
from the ruins and has deep enough pockets to rebuild the place. But
it won’t be the actual structure that hosted some of America’s biggest
entertainers, from Bob Hope to Chairman of the Board Frank Sinatra.
club’s history goes back to 1923 when a small restaurant not-so-uniquely
known as the Chop Suey opened at 21st Street and Seawall. Though shut
down for a time for illegal gambling, it reopened after Sam and Rosario
Maceo – Italian immigrants who went from barbering to bootlegging
– used some of their illicit income to purchase it. They called it
the Sui Jen and offered Chinese food and a night club. Oh, and wide-open
By this time, the early 1930s, many Texans and out-of-state visitors
came to Galveston
to brace themselves with illegal booze and a little partying in the
face of a financial crisis first referred to in the newspapers and
magazines as “the Emergency.” Soon it came to be called the Depression,
and later, the Great Depression.
Indeed, the Sui Jen and other places owned by the Maceos, including
the Turf Club, helped Galveston
fare better than many cities as the Emergency dragged on.
Early in World War
II, with Galveston
swarming with soldiers, airmen and sailors, the Maceos decided to
go with a more tropical sounding name – the Balinese Room. They remodeled
the place and lengthened what had been a 200-foot pier by 400 feet.
At the end of the pier, 200 yards out into the Gulf of Mexico, they
built a sophisticated gaming room.
photo shows the Seawall looking east from 25th Street. The first pier...the
big wide one is Murdock's. It was the oldest one on the island, and
it, too, was totally destroyed by Ike. The second pier, the long one,
is the Balinese Room. In was across from the Galvez Hotel. This photo
is rather rare since it also has in it the famous Mountain Speedway
roller coaster. The Mountain Speedway was made totally of wood. It
was destroyed by Hurricane Carla in 1962.
| Of course, 600
feet was still well inside U.S. territorial waters, but the Maceos
seemed to think the room lay far enough at sea for them to run a casino
just as if it were legal to do so.
had always seen itself as independent from the rest of Texas and no
one minded particularly that the club had been a speak-easy and gambling
joint for most of its existence. The Maceos stimulated the local economy.
When someone asked long-time Galveston County Sheriff Frank Biaggne
why he didn’t shutter the Balinese Room, he famously replied that
it was a private club and he was not a member.
Using the business model later perfected in a then-small Nevada town
called Las Vegas, the Maceos brought in the biggest names in entertainment
during the club’s heyday. The list of men and women who appeared at
the club reads like an entertainment industry’s Who’s Who. Listed
alphabetically, some of those who had gigs at the Balinese Room included
Gene Autry, Jack Benny,
George Burns and Gracie Allen, Duke Ellington, Phil Harris, Guy Lombardo,
Groucho Marx and Mel Torme.
orders from Austin, Rangers
occasionally raided the place. That usually came after some politician
found it expedient to proclaim he was “Shocked, shocked to find out
that gaming is going on…” in the Great State of Texas.
(Rent a DVD of “Casablanca” if you’d like to practice Captain Renault’s
Usually, when the men in the big hats showed up at the red door, the
Balinese’s house band struck up a rousing version of “The Eyes of
Texas” to alert the staff in the back that the Rangers had arrived.
By the time the lawmen got to the gaming room, no evidence of gambling
could be found.
In 1957, newly elected state Attorney General Will Wilson, who as
a district attorney had cleaned up gambling and vice in Dallas,
turned his attention to the so-called Free State of Galveston.
“Shocked, shocked…” he employed undercover operatives to penetrate
the club and later, after someone tipped off the Balinese that the
Rangers were planning a big raid, used civil injunctions to still
the slots and stop the roulette wheels.
Even so, the process took longer than most people realize. Up to the
early ‘60s, Rangers still occasionally showed up to make sure the
lid on Galveston
gaming stayed down.
But for all practical purposes, the party – at least the illegal version
– was over by the spring of 1957. The Maceos had died a few years
earlier and the club closed. Variously someone would reopen the place
as a shell shop or eatery, but the magic was long gone.
The old club got roughed up by Hurricane Carla in 1961 and again by
Alicia in 1983, but the structure proved as durable as a geriatric
slot machine addict.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, the Balinese
Room sat empty for a time before Houston lawyer Scott Arnold took
a 60-year lease on the place in 2001. He reopened it as a live entertainment
venue – sans gambling.
Whether he will rebuild the Balinese and roll the figurative dice
one more time remains to be seen.
© Mike Cox
September 18, 2008 column
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