By Melinda Cote
It's gone now, just a cherished memory held close in the hearts of those old enough to remember, an elusive fantasy to those too young to know.
Splintered ashore and dumped unceremoniously in a heap of mangled nostalgia by the relentless forces of Hurricane Ike on September 13, 2008, there is nothing left these days of the old Balinese Room and pier, not even the stub of a rotting pillar jutting from the sand to mark the footprint of the legendary landmark.
But once upon a time, it was famous.
Built over the Gulf at the end of a six-hundred-foot pier at the foot of 21st Street on Seawall Boulevard, the Balinese Room of the 1940s was the most celebrated nightclub in America, known coast to coast as a first-class showplace, the jewel of the Gulf Coast.
The "B Room," as it was affectionately known back then, featured exquisite dining amidst exotic South Seas décor with entertainment by the big-name headliners of the day: Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jayne Mansfield, Guy Lombardo, Phil Harris, and the sultry singer Peggy Lee, among others. Famed ballroom instructor Arthur Murray and his former student, Hollywood hot foot Fred Astaire, even gave free dance lessons at the Balinese and judged dance contests there.
But the biggest draw of the Balinese Room wasn't the show, the food, or the ambience. It was what took place in the private back rooms lavishly catering to the deep pockets of the day—casino gambling, with dice, roulette, and blackjack tables, half a dozen slot machines, and room for 150 players. Illegal, of course. Did Galvestonians care? Not much.
The liquor flowed, the dice rolled, and the money came pouring in. It was a heady time.
In fact, it was Vegas before Vegas.
For a legend to be born, history demands a unique combination of characters and circumstance. In the early years of the 20th century, two young immigrant brothers from Palermo, Sicily, arrived in our island town, barbers trained, on a quest for the American dream.
And history smiled. They were exactly the right men, in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time.
The right men were Rosario ("Rose") Maceo, born September 8, 1887, and his younger brother Salvatore ("Sam"), born March 1, 1894.
The right place was Galveston, Texas, geographically and psychologically apart from the mainland state and coming alive again in the aftermath of the Great Storm of 1900 that very nearly wiped it off the map.
The right time—the catalyst—was the era of Prohibition, which began with ratification of the 18th Amendment on January 29, 1919, outlawing "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors." Enforced later in 1919 by passage of the Volstead Act, Prohibition set the stage for a legend in the making.
Of course, the Balinese Room did not spring fully formed from the heads of Sam and Rose Maceo. It was, rather, the pinnacle of an evolution that began, fortuitously enough, with a modest proposal.
In 1901, the Maceo family immigrated to the United States from Italy through the port of New Orleans, settling in the lumber town of Leesville, Louisiana, but life proved to be a struggle there. By 1912 Rose, eager to seek better opportunities elsewhere, moved on to Galveston, followed by Sam a short time later.
Over the next few years, Rose and Sam busied themselves tidying the locks of the island locals, Sam in a barber shop at the beautiful new Hotel Galvez, Rose from a single barber chair in a corner of a seafood café on Murdoch's Pier. As chance would have it, Murdoch's was a favored hangout of Galveston's so-called Beach Gang, one of the two main criminal operations on the island, its rival being the Downtown Gang. Proximity and a barber chair bred familiarity over time, and Rose eventually gained the trust of the Beach Gang's two leaders, O.E. "Dutch" Voight and Ollie J. Quinn.
Meanwhile, with passage of the Volstead Act in 1919, Prohibition had become the law of the land, and Galveston's unique geography made it an ideal location for smuggling illegal hooch. Schooners loaded with liquor from British Honduras, Cuba, Jamaica, and the Bahamas would head to "Rum Row," an area at sea some forty miles south of the island. There, under cover of darkness, they would be met by small, fast boats—rum runners—that would dash out, offload the bootleg booty, and haul it back to shore for later distribution to key points north.
As was the case around the country, bootlegging became a very lucrative business, but it was a tricky one, of course. In 1921, already on the radar of the federal Bureau of Customs and with a recent large shipment that he quickly needed to hide in a location untraceable to him, Voight hit upon an idea: the barber.
At the time, Rose was living in a raised beach cottage with ample storage below. Knowing this, Voight approached him one day with the following proposal: he would pay Rose $1.00 per case if he could stash his cache of 1,500 cases under Rose's cottage for three days. For a barber making only 25 cents per head, this was a substantial sum and (ahem) an offer he couldn't refuse. Rose accepted, albeit reluctantly, the fear of deportation should he be caught making his next two nights' sleep somewhat fitful.
When Voight later returned to collect his product and make good on his payment, clever Rose had come up with a counter-proposal. Instead of accepting the money, Rose asked Voight to keep it in exchange for cutting him and his brother in on the Beach Gang's next deal. Voight, with the blessing of Quinn, agreed, and overnight—over two nights?—the erstwhile barbers were in the bootlegging business.
With Voight's offer, the enterprising Maceos had seen an opportunity and grabbed the golden ring.
Sam and Rose continued barbering for a short time, handing out free glasses of so-called "Dago Red" (cheap red wine) to their customers and selling a little bootleg liquor on the side by concealing it in hollowed-out loaves of French bread.
Thanks to the extra greenbacks growing in their pockets, and with the help of Voight and Quinn to start their own illegal gambling rooms, the brothers soon put down the scissors and comb for good. In 1923, they purchased the property at 21st Street and Seawall Boulevard and opened their first club, the Chop Suey Café. Originally home to a fishing pier, the Original Mexican Restaurant, Galveston's first Pleasure Pier, and a family-friendly outdoor park, the property would one day be home to the Balinese Room, but for now the Chop Suey was its first iteration—and the brothers' first foray into the gambling and entertainment business.
In 1926, the Chop Suey was transformed into a dining and dancing establishment renamed the Grotto, the second iteration of the nightclub on the pier at 21st. The Grotto's run was brief, however. It was closed a scant two years later for alcohol and gaming violations and remained closed for the next few years.
In 1932, the shuttered property was severely damaged by a storm, and the brothers used the opportunity to rebuild and remodel. Extending the pier to 200 feet, repairing the building, and remodeling the interior with an Oriental motif, the Maceos opened the Sui Jen Café (say "swee rin"), reportedly one of the most beautiful night spots in the nation. With this third iteration of the nightclub, the brothers were coming into their own, especially Sam, who was blossoming into the consummate host. The Sui Jen would continue in operation for the next ten years, ultimately morphing into the Balinese Room in 1942.
While the pier at 21st continued its steady evolution, roll back to 1926. At the edge of town, south of Offats Bayou, where 61st Street ended at Stewart Road back in the day, something else was happening, something new, something exciting.
The brothers Maceo were going Hollywood.
But not going to Hollywood. Bringing Hollywood home. To Galveston.
In partnership with Voight and Quinn, but for the last time, Sam and Rose broke ground on a sparkling new nightclub at 6102 Stewart Road (Avenue S)—and groundbreaking it would shortly prove to be.
The architecture of the new Hollywood Dinner Club was Spanish, clean white stucco with a red-tiled roof and graceful arches; the interior all glam, with crystal chandeliers, rattan furniture, a large dance floor of gleaming hardwoods, and dinner seating for 500. With their splashy new nightclub, the brothers had arrived, and the nation was about to take notice.
On the Sunday before the grand opening on Wednesday night, Sam and Rose opened the club to their fellow Galvestonians for a special sneak preview, an event that attracted some 5,000 of their curious neighbors. It was a gesture of genuine affection for their island home, an embrace of the community that would be repeated many times in the years to follow.
On opening night, June 9, 1926, to great anticipation, both locally and beyond, and with two large searchlights filling the sky for miles to herald the event, the Hollywood Dinner Club made its spectacular debut.
It was an instant success.
For the first time under one roof, the Hollywood offered gourmet cuisine, alcohol (both during and after Prohibition), public gambling (illegal, of course, but no matter), and top-tier entertainment, a winning formula later replicated on the famous Las Vegas Strip. But the Maceos were the first to offer it, and their genius and skill soon brought them fame, fortune, and a forever entry in the history books.
The Hollywood was a first on other fronts, too. For starters, it was air-conditioned, the first nightclub in the nation able to boast this extravagant amenity. It was also host to the country's first remote radio broadcast, a performance by the popular Ben Bernie and All the Boys, which was picked up by radio stations all across the Midwest.
The Hollywood was not called the Hollywood for nothing. Sam had begun courting quality entertainment from the earliest days of the Chop Suey, but with the new club, the talent went truly stellar. With his good looks, natural charm, and polished manners, Sam—now the front man for the brothers' showplaces, with Rose the boss and brains behind the scenes—was able to lure some of the biggest names in show business to Galveston.
The dazzle started opening night with Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, one of the top acts in the country. During their three-week engagement, an estimated 20,000 guests visited the club. Over the years, the line-up of stars to play the Hollywood included, among others, Frank Sinatra, Sophie Tucker, Peggy Lee, Phil Harris, Joe E. Lewis, the Ritz Brothers, Glenn Miller, playing first trombone with Ray Noble's band, and a young trumpet player from Beaumont named Harry James.
Rhumba contests were also a feature at the Hollywood. With first prizes of $1,000, many of the best hoofers in the country showed up to show off. Arthur Murray judged dance contests at the Hollywood, and a fresh-faced Fred Astaire was the resident dance instructor for a time.
All the dining, dancing, and décor aside, the real lure of the Hollywood was, of course, the gambling. With thirty crap tables, roulette, blackjack, and all manner of slot machines, social elites and high rollers from all over the state flocked to the Hollywood to test their skills—and luck—at the tables. Sam, by now the consummate host, made sure his well-heeled patrons were treated like royalty. Nothing but the best for guests of the Hollywood.
Sam had two rules at the club. First, no patron should have to light his own cigarette; a handy waiter was to instantly appear nearby with a lighted match. Second, the temperature inside the club was to be kept at a constant 69 degrees. Sam's calculus? The cooler the player, the less he felt his booze, and the less he felt his booze, the cooler—not hotter—he was at the crap tables. Did it work? Apparently.
The Hollywood Dinner Club was a huge success and tremendously popular, but its location was vulnerable to periodic raids. Being on the outskirts of town didn't put it out of reach of the Texas Rangers, and it was eventually closed for gaming violations in the late 1930s.
But the enterprising Maceos had one more card up their sleeves, and it was a stroke of pure genius.
What is the saying? One if by land, two if by sea. Or in their case, many if by land, none if by sea. Texas Rangers, that is.
In the early 1940s, the brothers would return to their roots at the 21st Street pier and create a swanky new showplace that would prove immune to the long arm of the law. The Hollywood was merely the prototype; the new nightclub would become legend.
It was the perfect location, down at the pier on 21st Street, down at the Balinese.
With the forcible closure of the Hollywood Dinner Club in the late 1930s, and long before Billy Gibbons was even a twinkle in his papa Freddie's eye, Sam and Rose decided to refocus their energies back on the pier at 21st Street with a complete redesign of the Sui Jen Café to replace their former Stewart Road showplace.
On a trip to Tennessee, Sam happened to visit the Hotel Claridge in Memphis and was immediately struck by the exquisite design of the hotel's club, which was called, interestingly enough, the Balinese Room.
Enamored with its décor and certain that this was exactly the style he was looking for to replace the Sui Jen, Sam inquired about the designer and learned he was a gifted MIT graduate out of Chicago by the name of Virgil Quadri. Sam quickly caught a train to Chicago in search of Quadri and was soon back in Galveston, eager to get started on the pier's renovation.
Working with Quadri and a New York architect, the brothers' first order of business was to extend the pier itself, to an incredible 600 feet over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Next, with the land-locked Hollywood's vulnerability to raids still fresh in their minds, Sam and Rose carefully planned the new club's layout.
At the seawall was a single front entry providing controlled access to the club, followed by a long breezeway and hall that opened into the club's large dining and show room. Behind this was the kitchen and another long hall interrupted by a series of six heavy glass doors, and at the very end of the pier, over the deepest waters, were the private back rooms where the gambling operations took place.
This ingenious arrangement would keep the club's illegal pursuits safe from the Stetson hats for many years to come.
The facade of the Maceos' new nightclub was pure Streamline Moderne (Art Moderne), a late form of Art Deco architecture that emerged in the 1930s. With its curved corners, horizontal lines, flat roof, and signature glass block, the club's sleek new entrance whispered "class."
But the showstopper of the new showplace was Quadri's inspired interiors.
Born in Rome, the son of a Spanish nobleman and American mother, and schooled in both Europe and America, Virgil Quadri was a talented artist with an interior design portfolio that included fine homes, the ballrooms and bars of prestigious hotels, and a Masonic temple.
With a tropical South Seas theme already in mind for his latest creation, it was Quadri who proposed the nightclub's new name—and thus was born a new Balinese Room, this one, by his own account, his masterpiece. It was, in a word, exotic.
The crowning jewel of the club was its large dining and show room, which featured a recessed stage with grand piano for performances on one end, a large dance floor, and abundant seating in comfortable rattan furniture whose tables were topped with signature linens bordered in green.
With walls of woven bamboo trimmed in geometric patterns of cane, the soft blue of a South Pacific sky overhead, and a swirling pattern of palm fronds underfoot, the Balinese Room at once transported its guest to a distant, exotic shore.
Stepping into the Balinese, with its tropical hues and festooned with Polynesian art, fishnets full of waxed mangos, bananas, and grapes, and strings of colorful glass floats, was like stepping into Shangri-La.
Having originally studied to be an engineer at MIT, Quadri was also a lighting expert. In later years, he would return to the Balinese to install carefully placed black lights above the dance floor, setting all those starched white dinner shirts aglow.
What truly set this grand room apart, however, were two singular features.
At intervals along the walls, and all around the room, were lovely, expansive murals handpainted by Quadri, depicting languid beach scenes of a faraway paradise, with native women dressed in colorful island garb amidst exotic flowers, foliage, and fruit. And anchoring each corner of the dance floor were four life-sized, lighted palm trees fashioned in glass and tones of gold and topped with graceful, elegant fronds.
The beautiful murals and stylized palms added an extra, magical touch to the ambience of the Balinese—and both to mesmerizing effect.
By early December 1941, work was completed on the new club and the opening set for New Year's Eve. As it turned out, the world had other plans.
Sam and Rose had invited family and friends over to their new Balinese Room, eager to get their critique and suggestions, but on the night they arrived, the radio crackled with reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sam, who rarely drank, was visibly shaken and retired to the bar for a glass to digest the news. He withdrew from the public eye for the next two weeks, and when he later emerged, Sam, always the perfectionist, announced that he wasn't happy with the new bandstand and directed its reconstruction. Finally, with this last-minute detail completed, the Balinese Room officially opened its doors on January 17, 1942.
Promised to be bigger and better than its predecessor, the Hollywood Dinner Club, and in part due to that glitzy club's demise, the grand opening of the Maceos' new nightspot was a highly anticipated event and, by all accounts, more than worth the wait.
The Balinese Room was the swankiest nightclub on the Gulf Coast, and the big-name stars who had performed at the Hollywood returned to play the Balinese, with many more to boot. Along with Frank Sinatra, Phil Harris, Peggy Lee, Sophie Tucker, and others from the Hollywood days, new top headliners appeared on the Balinese stage, including Bob Hope, Duke Ellington, the Marx Brothers, Tony Bennett, Jayne Mansfield, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jimmy Dorsey, Frankie Lane, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, even the Three Stooges.
And then there was the gambling. The high-end, high-stakes casino at the blue water end of the pier could accommodate 150 players with five dice tables, three roulette tables, two blackjack tables, and half a dozen slot machines. In fact, the Balinese, affectionately nicknamed the "B Room," soon earned another sobriquet, "Houston's Country Club," due to the Bayou City's wealthy oilmen, like Diamond Jim West, Jack Josey, and Glenn McCarthy, who came to play and win—or lose—a hundred grand on a single roll of the dice.
By 1942, Prohibition had long been relegated to the history books, although liquor by the drink in Texas was still illegal. But Sam and Rose got around this technicality by making the Balinese Room a "members only" establishment.
Of course, public gambling was, and still is, illegal in Texas, and with its fame, the Balinese Room—and the Maceos themselves—became the primary bullseye on the Texas Rangers' target.
Of course, the wily brothers had planned for this from the beginning, and the long, circuitous path—from seawall to snake eyes—that they had carefully created for the men in the white hats became famously known as "Rangers' Run." Not only that, they even perfected a drill designed to thwart any attempted raid.
Here's how it went:
When the Rangers appeared at the front door poised to raid the club, the smiling hostess stationed there placed a dainty toe on a floor-mounted buzzer that would sound an alarm in the gambling rooms at the end of the pier. On this signal, the casino staff would shift into high gear, quickly folding the slot machines into the walls like Murphy beds, converting crap tables into bridge and backgammon tables, and stashing the rest of the gambling paraphernalia—one time, in the kitchen's still-hot oven, cooking a perfectly good set of brand new chips. So practiced and deft were they that the whole operation took a mere thirty seconds.
As the Rangers made their run down the long pier, finally bursting into the dining room, the orchestra leader would immediately stop the music and announce to the B Room guests, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, we give you, in person, the Texas Rangers!" On his cue, the band would strike up "The Eyes of Texas" and all the loyal Texan guests would stand up and sing along, creating a human obstacle course that further slowed the Rangers' progress through the crowded room. By the time they finally made it through the dining room, down the back hall, past the kitchen, through the six heavy glass doors, and into the casino, all the gambling equipment had been neatly stowed, with not a trace of illegal activity in sight. It was a neat trick. And it worked every time.
Frank L. Biaggne, sheriff of Galveston County from 1933 to 1957, once remarked to a state investigative committee in Austin that the reason he never raided the Balinese Room was because it was a private club, he wasn't a member, and they wouldn't let him in. Reportedly, he said this with a straight face.
By now, the Maceos owned the entertainment and gambling industry in Galveston, former members of the Downtown and Beach Gangs having long since scattered or donned their prison stripes.
Sam and Rose—now often addressed as "Big Sam" and "Papa Rose"—expanded their interests and opened other clubs, including the chic Studio Lounge, the Turf Grill, and the Western Room, all housed in the three-story Turf Building at 2214 Market Street downtown.
They consolidated their businesses under a single umbrella holding company called the Turf Athletic Club ("TAC"). Its initials are ubiquitous in their advertising and on the chips, dinnerware, linens, and sundry products associated with their many clubs.
But Sam and Rose were not just entrepreneurs and businessmen; they were also generous philanthropists who shared their wealth and good fortune with the citizens of the island they loved and called home.
Sam especially was well known for his big heart, generous spirit, and charitable activism in the community. For example, after the 1947 Texas City disaster, Sam rallied his Hollywood friends to Galveston where they gave a big benefit concert to aid the families of the victims in that horrific tragedy. Among other activities, he was chairman of entertainment at a benefit to fight infantile paralysis and a committeeman to combat pollution in Galveston waters. Sam also donated freely to orphanages and needy children's funds, and even paid the expenses for Monsignor O'Connell, rector of St. Mary's Cathedral, to visit his mother in Ireland every year. Sam often donned an apron and cooked spaghetti for his family and friends, and for these acts and many more, he was well loved by Galvestonians.
Even taciturn Rose, almost always behind the scenes but most known for his famous "Night Riders" who kept the city streets safe at night for the good citizens of Galveston, had a soft spot, too. Rose once outbid a rich Houston oilman and paid $5,300 for a feathered hat at a charity benefit to support the Houston Boys' Club.
The brothers' fame and fortune continued to rise throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s, but alas, the times they were a-changin'.
On April 16, 1951, at the age of 57, Sam passed away unexpectedly due to complications from a cancer-related surgery on his esophagus, followed by Rose's death, on March 15, 1954 at age 66, of heart failure.
With the passing of the two kings of the Maceo empire, the legalization of gambling in Las Vegas, and the inevitable western migration to an environment friendlier to that line of business, the writing was on the wall.
The Galveston entertainment and gambling scene was fast winding down, and by 1957, all the illegal establishments in the city and surrounding areas were forcibly closed. Noteworthy is the fact that the Balinese itself was not shut down as the result of a successful raid. It took a carefully planned sting operation, with undercover agents planted in the casino, to finally bring the B Room down.
With the closure of the Balinese Room in 1957, the shuttered pier sat silent for a number of years. Then, in 1961, Hurricane Carla ripped through Galveston, seriously damaging the property and utterly destroying the long pier that connected its seawall entrance to the dining room and former casino.
A few years later, Johnny Mitchell, brother of beloved Galveston philanthropist George P. Mitchell, purchased the property, rebuilt the pier, and fashioned a brand new facade on Seawall Boulevard. It was Mitchell who created the Asian-inspired design, often misidentified with the Maceos, that many Galvestonians remember.
Mitchell opened his new Balinese Room in 1966 as a fancy dinner theater. Gambling, of course, was a thing of the past, but the club was returned to its former glory as a beautiful and alluring nightspot.
The Balinese Room continued as a dinner theater until the early 1980s but ultimately closed again. After sitting vacant and in disrepair for many years, it eventually became the property of the State of Texas.
In 2001, Scott Arnold, a Houston attorney and real estate developer, took out a sixty-year lease on the property and used it as a music and party venue until 2008 when Hurricane Ike stormed in. On Saturday, September 13, the pier, the buildings, and all the memories and memorabilia of that bygone era finally and forever succumbed to the waves.
So if you happen to be driving east on Seawall Boulevard of a breezy moonlit night, slow down as you approach 21st Street, pull over, and take a seat on the bench that awaits you there. Look out on the glistening waves and pause for a moment to ponder the glitz and the glamor of this very spot in the 1940s and all the magic and the mischief that took place here back in those heady days.
Remember Sam and Rose Maceo, their genius and their generosity, and, of course, their crowning glory, the legendary Balinese Room.
All of them, gone now. Gone but not forgotten.