THROWBACK THURSDAY...Lost Treasure: The Balinese Room (courtesy Rosenberg Library)
Gambling and illegal pleasures have always been a part of Galveston history. As early as 1839, when the City of Galveston was founded, local officials have faced an uphill battle to keep illegal gambling operations out of the city. During the period from 1923 to 1957, Galveston reigned as the gaming capital of Texas.
Before it became the infamous Balinese Room, the site located at 21st Street and Seawall Boulevard, was home to the 21th Street fishing pier, the Original Mexican Restaurant, and the first of two Pleasure Piers. Gambling first debuted on the pier when Salvatore (Sam) Maceo and his older brother Rosario (Rose) Maceo invested in the restaurant, Chop Suey, in 1923.
In May of 1928, the former restaurant opened as the City’s newest dining and dancing club, Maceo's Grotto. The interior decorations and setting made the club a distinctive landmark, but it closed later that year for liquor and gaming violations. Law officials confiscated and destroyed all gambling materials found on the premises. The structure was damaged by a storm in 1932. It was remodeled with Oriental décor and a new 200-foot pier and reopened as the Sui Jen Café (pronounced “Swee Rin”). The interior of the Sui Jen was said to be one of the most beautiful and attractive in the country, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the decor was modified accordingly.
On January 17th, 1942, the Maceos opened their Galveston jewel, the Balinese Room. The interior had been remodeled in a South Seas motif and the pier had again been expanded, this time to 600 feet. Its private back room was equipped with the most modern gaming equipment, and long before Vegas attracted the big names, the Maceos lured high rollers to "Play on Galveston Island."
In its heyday, the Balinese Room drew crowds from all over the country. The showroom featured a laundry list of stars including Phil Harris, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, the Ritz Brothers, George Burns, and Gracie Allen, Peggy Lee, Duke Ellington, and Jayne Mansfield among many others of the industry’s best. It is said that Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray would even give free dance lessons to the hotspot’s lucky patrons. There is even a story that the B Room’s bartender invented a new drink for singer Peggy (Margaret) Lee in 1948. He supposedly named it after the Spanish version of her name, Margarita, and it’s been a hit ever since.
There is also an epic tale that the Balinese Room was raided on 64 consecutive nights – without one charge ever made. When Texas Rangers would raid the establishment, a buzzer would sound in the back room, all gambling devices would disappear into the secret floor and wall compartments and tables would instantly be set with linens and silver. By the time the Rangers would reach the end of the pier, guests would stand and the band would strike up “The Eyes of Texas.”
There was a small fire on March 8, 1953, but a larger blaze caused by defective wiring forced the Balinese Room to close seven months later. The plush Balinese Room was destroyed. The club was operated by Anthony and Victor Fertitta, nephews of the late Sam Maceo. In 1955 a new Balinese Room featured an automatic sprinkler system and a fire escape around the entire structure. Officials raved that the new club was to be even more elaborate than its predecessor.
Unfortunately, the refurbished B-Room was not allowed to flourish for long. In 1956, Will Wilson was elected as Texas' Attorney General after campaigning to "close down Galveston" and its illegal casinos. On May 30, 1957, Sheriff Paul Hopkins raided the Balinese Room. With two undercover detectives already inside the casino, he demanded entrance. The charges stuck, and the gaming devices were confiscated and destroyed. This marked the end of the illegal gaming era in Galveston.
The Balinese Room sat empty for years. In 1961, Hurricane Carla tore through Galveston, and further damaged the former hotspot by washing away many of the pilings that supported the structure. It has had several owners since then, but after sitting vacant for so long, the Balinese Room eventually became the property of the State of Texas.
A local attorney, Scott Arnold, reopened the Balinese Room for business in 2002. After much-needed repair, Mr. Arnold brought back the lustrous beauty of the former nightclub. It featured artifacts such as the original chalkboard ledgers used for baseball betting, the restored South Seas interior decor, and even the piano once used by Duke Ellington. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
In September of 2008, the famed club would get its grand finale. Although the pier was higher than the seawall, the storm surge of Hurricane Ike completely destroyed the Balinese Room, leaving behind little but its iconic red door and memories of its yesteryear. May it only be remembered with the fondest of heart.
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